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Virginia Notebook: Democratic Dinner Holds Answers

Tim Craig

The Virginia Democratic Party will have its annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner Saturday at the Richmond Convention Center. Former president Bill Clinton will headline the fundraiser.

A who's who of elected officials and party leaders and activists will attend.

But the focus will be on the three Democratic candidates for governor: Terry McAuliffe, Brian J. Moran and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath).

Here are 15 questions that the dinner should help to answer. Check back next week for the answers.

1) What kind of reception does McAuliffe receive? Since he announced his candidacy a month ago, McAuliffe has generally been well received on the campaign trail, according to news reports. But it's no secret that some Virginia Democrats remain skeptical of McAuliffe, who until recently has not been involved in local or state politics. The dinner will be his first big appearance in front of activists who will play a crucial role in deciding the nomination. A tepid response could indicate a major obstacle for McAuliffe, despite his hefty bank account.

2) Whom do the Democrats attack now that they don't have George W. Bush to kick around? In recent years, the speakers at the dinner directed much of their rhetoric at the Bush administration. Now that Bush is out of office, Virginia Democrats will have to find a new punching bag. The most likely new boogeyman is House Speaker William J. Howell (Stafford) and the rest of the House GOP leadership. Other possibilities include U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House minority whip, who is leading the fight against President Obama's stimulus package, Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (Fairfax), a Republican candidate for attorney general, Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, the GOP nominee-to-be for governor, and Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick (Prince William), chairman of the Virginia Republican Party.

3) Can Brian Moran avoid the Dean Scream? Moran has a tendency to get a bit energetic in front of large audiences. When he spoke at last year's JJ dinner, his message was drowned out because he appeared to be yelling during much of it. Moran's performance brought back images of former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean's infamous scream during the 2004 presidential contest. Although Moran escaped from last year's dinner without political damage, a repeat performance this year could be a big turnoff for Democrats scrutinizing his potential for a run against McDonnell.

4) Will any other candidate for lieutenant governor break into the top tier? The race for lieutenant governor seems to get more crowded each week. Jody W. Wagner, who served as finance secretary under Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), and Jon Bowerbank, a wealthy businessman from Russell County, appear to be the leading candidates for the nomination. But the other announced candidates - attorneyMichael Signer , political strategist Rich Savage and Virginia Beach School Board member Pat Edmondson, have plenty of time to prove they are also serious contenders.

5) Will there be a contested primary for attorney general? Del. Stephen C. Shannon (D-Fairfax) is the only announced Democratic candidate for attorney general. Shannon has amassed an impressive campaign fund; he had $749,000 in the bank as of Dec. 31. But Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke), who unsuccessfully sought the nomination for attorney general in 2001, is reportedly considering entering the race. Edwards or another potential candidate would have to send a signal this weekend, or Shannon could build up too big a head start.

6) Which candidate for governor has the best organization? The dinner has traditionally been an early test of which candidate can do a better job mobilizing supporters. Before the dinner, candidates often organize rally squads in front of the convention so guests can evaluate who has the largest following. At last year's dinner, which took place a few days before Virginia's Feb. 12 presidential primary, Obama had twice as many supporters as Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama went on to beat Clinton by nearly 2 to 1 in Virginia.

7) Will House Democrats show up? Because it takes place during the legislative session, Virginia Republicans have complained about the Democrats' dinner for years, arguing it undermines the ban on elected officials' raising money during the session. Democrats say the fundraiser is legal because the state party -- not lawmakers -- sponsors the event. House Republicans pushed through a bill last month that would ban lawmakers and statewide officials from attending fundraising events sponsored by a political party, lobbyist or campaign contributors during the legislative session. The majority of Democrats voted to send the bill to the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said House Democrats who voted for the bill would be hypocrites if they showed up at this year's dinner.

9) Will this be Deeds's moment to shine? Deeds is an unpolished speaker, so expectations are low. The dinner provides him the opportunity to surprise critics and pundits with a strong performance.

10) What does the term "Virginia Democrat" mean in 2009? Ever since Sen. Mark R. Warner was elected governor in 2001, Virginia Democrats have tried to position the state party as pro-business and socially moderate. But Moran, who a year ago was campaigning as Warner's heir apparent, now bills himself as a progressive. If McAuliffe and Deeds follow his lead, the Virginia Democratic brand could undergo a major shift to the left.

11) Does Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) make an appearance? Some Democratic activists were upset last year when Webb failed to show up, given that they had worked tirelessly in 2006 to get him elected. Webb has never been fond of partisan Democratic events, but it is now harder for him to avoid them because Virginia has two Democratic senators. When Warner shows up at a party event, some activists will undoubtedly ask, "Where is Webb?"

12) Can McAuliffe stick to the clock? McAuliffe sure does like to talk. His announcement speech lasted nearly 40 minutes. There is a fine line between being lively and being long-winded. McAuliffe will have to find the right balance.

13) Does Kaine give any hint of his fall strategy? As the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Kaine is vowing to make the Virginia governor's race his top political priority this year. In 2005, the national party diverted $5 million to Kaine's campaign for governor. Kaine may offer clues to his plans for the fall.

14) Are Virginia Democrats burned out on elections yet? In the past year, Virginia Democrats have participated in a half-dozen elections, including the Feb. 12 primary, three special elections for the House of Delegates, the Nov. 4 general election and this week's Fairfax County chairman's race. Some Democrats might be getting election fatigue. With the dinner coming on the heels of the last month's inauguration, the state party might have a hard time filling the seats, which could signal it will be hard to keep activists engaged for the 2009 elections.

15) Can Bill Clinton keep his word? When they invited him, state Democratic Party officials say they extracted promises from the former president that he would not use his speech to promote McAuliffe, who is one of his best friends. But Clinton might drop subtle or not-so-subtle hints about his hopes for the primary.

By Tim Craig  |  February 4, 2009; 2:04 PM ET
Categories:  2009 Governor's Race , Brian J. Moran , Creigh Deeds , Terry McAuliffe , Tim Craig  
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"A tepid response could indicate a major obstacle for McAuliffe, despite his hefty bank account."

McAuliffe's been using his hefty bank account to buy tickets for supporters, so I'm not sure whether question 1 will answered by the audience response there.

Posted by: jimeh | February 5, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

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