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Virginia Notebook: Deeds, Moran vs. McAuliffe

Tim Craig

During this year's campaign for governor of Virginia, one piece of trivia that will probably be invoked is that since Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, the party that has won the White House has lost the state's race for governor the next year.

But here is another tidbit that might be more relevant in this year's contest: Since 1957, no delegate or state senator has won the nomination for governor without first leaving the General Assembly to serve in a higher office.

In Virginia, where governors can run for only one term, major party nominees in modern times have been sitting or former lieutenant governors, attorneys general, congressmen or businessmen.

Brian Moran (D), who resigned last month from the House of Delegates to focus on fundraising, and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) are hoping to buck that trend. But first, they have to get past Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

McAuliffe's candidacy is offering clues why it is so hard for state lawmakers to leap to the highest office in the commonwealth.

In campaign finance reports released last week, Deeds reported raising $658,000 from July.1 to Dec..31. Moran raised $755,000, including a $50,000 donation from his brother, U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). Although their coffers are respectable, Moran and Deeds appear to be well short of the resources needed to wage a modern TV campaign.

McAuliffe raised $950,000, but he had been a candidate for only the last six weeks of the reporting period.

In dealing with McAuliffe's entry into the race, Moran and Deeds face a unique challenge.

Moran, who has not had to run a competitive race since being elected to the General Assembly in 1995, will have to keep pace with McAuliffe financially or figure out how to make strategic spending decisions that won't jeopardize his bid.

Deeds is starting to signal that he might not try to raise or spend money on the same scale as his opponents.

If that occurs, Deeds risks a trap that befell former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in last year's GOP presidential primaries -- he's a popular guy who was never quite accepted as a serious contender.

Although many State House insiders were initially skeptical of McAuliffe, he has been running a nearly flawless campaign. Democrats and Republicans are taking him seriously.

McAuliffe has put together a campaign team of veterans of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's (D) successful 2005 run. His advisers also have experience waging hard-fought national campaigns, which is translating into a sophisticated, media-savvy approach.

Consider how McAuliffe officially entered the race two weeks ago.

He had been telegraphing for weeks that he would announce his decision Jan..7 on whether to run. So what did he do? He pulled off a surprise Jan..3, a Saturday, releasing a video saying that he was going to run but would officially kick off his campaign Jan..7.

The result was a round of stories in Sunday newspapers, often the most read of the week, about McAuliffe's decision. He got another round of coverage later in the week,
after officially kicking off his campaign.

Since then, McAuliffe's campaign has been about building an image of overwhelming Deeds and Moran. On Jan..7, McAuliffe also unveiled his first radio advertisement.
The 60-second spot, kicking off perhaps the earliest gubernatorial ad campaign in state history, aired on black radio stations in Richmond and Norfolk.

McAuliffe's decision to target black voters shows he understands that African Americans are a crucial demographic in the June primary.

He has also found a way to keep his name in the media -- newspapers, TV, Democratic blogs -- almost daily. McAuliffe recently sought to shed his millionaire image by waiting tables in Hampton Roads. On Inauguration Day, he was planning to host a watch party for Democrats in Richmond instead of hobnobbing with A-list friends in Washington.

Mike Henry, McAuliffe's campaign manager, outlined his formidable campaign operation in a memo last week to supporters. In it, Henry said that McAuliffe has bought Internet and newspaper ads and plans to hire 40 field organizers.

McAuliffe is building a strategy that combines grass-roots organizing with paid media. Henry said in his memo that three-fourths of the campaign budget will be reserved to "communicate directly with voters."

Moran, who spent $150,000 more than he raised during the reporting period, will have to decide how to prioritize his campaign. If he invests too heavily in staff and field efforts, he might not have the resources to launch an effective media campaign. If he skimps on field organizers to do more advertising, he runs the risk of being out-organized by McAuliffe.

Moran is signaling that he'll try to do it all, as evidenced by the decision to hire Democratic strategist Joe Trippi as his media adviser.

Trippi is acclaimed for helping Howard Dean harness the Internet as a campaign tool during his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004.

It's unclear how Moran can afford new staff members. Last week, he announced that he had hired a campaign manager. Before those two hires, he had spent about $650,000 from July through December on consultants and fundraising, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Deeds has been frugal. But in interviews, he has said that he will not try to keep up with McAuliffe in fundraising and campaign apparatus.

The Deeds campaign appears to preparing for a strategy based on a primary turnout similar to that in the 2006 contest between Sen. James Webb and Harris Miller, a lawyer.

In that contest, 4.percent of registered voters showed up at the polls, most of whom were die-hard Democrats. But turnout could spike dramatically this year in what is the first contested Democratic gubernatorial primary in more than two decades.

If Deeds tries to run a campaign that is too low-key, he could be left behind as McAuliffe and Moran battle daily on TV for the affections of first-time voters.

Without a statewide base or national fundraising experience, Deeds and Moran have to work extra hard to prove that legislators have what it takes to mount a successful campaign for governor.

By Tim Craig  |  January 22, 2009; 9:05 AM ET
Categories:  2009 Governor's Race , Brian J. Moran , Creigh Deeds , Terry McAuliffe , Tim Craig  
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I hope voters choose experience in government over experience in politics, and reject a slick operative like Terry McAuliffe. That goes for the primary and general elections.

Posted by: Simon23p | January 23, 2009 4:25 AM | Report abuse

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