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Virginia Notebook: JJ Dinner Serves Up Answers

Tim Craig

A week ago, Virginia Notebook outlined 14 questions that would be answered at the state Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, which took place Saturday at the Richmond Convention Center.

Former president Bill Clinton headlined the event, but much of the focus was on the party's candidates for governor: Terry McAuliffe, Brian Moran and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath).

Here are the answers:

1) What kind of reception does McAuliffe receive? He got an enthusiastic response in the back of the room, where many supporters had tickets donated by McAuliffe or had arrived on buses chartered by McAuliffe. But many longtime Democratic activists in the middle of the hall appeared muted in their response.

The lukewarm reaction underscores the challenge McAuliffe faces heading into the June.9 primary. With many longtime activists committed to Moran or Deeds, McAuliffe will probably have to find a way to dramatically expand the Democratic primary electorate if he wants to prevail.

McAuliffe, who is expected to raise millions for his campaign, is well positioned for the challenge, especially considering that Deeds and Moran will likely split the establishment, "anti-McAuliffe" vote.

2) Whom do the Democrats attack now that they don't have George W. Bush to kick around? Moran, Deeds and McAuliffe all criticized Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, the Republicans' soon-to-be nominee for governor. But none of the candidates was effective in demonizing McDonnell. That highlights the Democrats' challenge in the general election.

During his speech, Clinton summed up Virginia Democrats' dilemma by noting there is a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress. "We have been given something we haven't had in years, but the only thing that matters to people is, what are we going to do now?" he said. "Nobody should waste their time with the tried-and-true applause lines against Republicans. They have done themselves in. They have to go back to the drawing board, just as we once did."

3) Can Brian Moran avoid the Dean Scream? Yes. In terms of delivery, Moran had the best performance of the three candidates. Although he sometimes appeared a tad nervous, Moran put forth a well-constructed argument that Democrats should get behind the candidate with a record of being involved in Virginia politics and issues.

Party activists are buzzing about whether Moran was too negative. Although he didn't mention McAuliffe by name, Moran took repeated swipes. (During his introductory video, the words "Money Isn't Everything" flashed across the screen.)

Some Democrats called it inappropriate to criticize a fellow Democrat at a party event. In a modern campaign, however, politicians need to draw contrasts with their opponent. And with McAuliffe running TV ads in Richmond and Norfolk, Moran probably couldn't afford to wait.

4) Will any other candidate for lieutenant governor break into the top tier? No. Former finance secretary Jody W. Wagner and Jon Bowerbank, a wealthy businessman from Russell County, remain the two leading candidates for the nomination.

But it's still early.

Although the lieutenant governor candidates did not speak at the dinner, they aired introductory videos. Virginia Beach School Board member Pat Edmondson said in her video that she was skipping the dinner and instead volunteering at a food bank. Lawyer Michael Signer vowed to make the office "more than a steppingstone." And political strategist Rich Savage's video featured testimonials from people who said, "It's time to get Savaged, Virginia."

5) Will there be a contested primary for attorney general? State Sen. John S. Edwards (Roanoke) said in an interview last week that he is leaning toward challenging Del. Steve Shannon (Fairfax) for the nomination. Edwards was at the dinner but does not yet appear to be a serious contender.

6) Which candidate for governor has the best organization? The dinner has traditionally been an early test of which candidate can do the best job mobilizing supporters. McAuliffe dominated the visibility contest. He plastered about 1,000 McAuliffe signs in downtown Richmond. Before the dinner, McAuliffe had the Richmond police shut down the street so that he and about 100 supporters could parade.

Moran, whose campaign had been struggling to raise money, did not participate in the pre-dinner visibility game. But Deeds hosted a pre-dinner rally that featured a gospel band and cheerleaders.

The McAuliffe campaign was clearly the best organized at the dinner. He had the biggest staff. But organized doesn't always mean organization. Once inside the hall, equal numbers of people appeared to be wearing Deeds, Moran and McAuliffe stickers. It appeared that Moran and Deeds had more supporters who had bought their tickets.

But McAuliffe's expected financial advantage should allow him to quickly buy himself an organization in addition to an organized campaign.

Consider how McAuliffe snagged Ebony Toomer of Norfolk to his side.

"His was the campaign that contacted me," Toomer said at the dinner. "They knew I was a first-time Obama volunteer, and someone called me and asked me to join them. I said, 'Sure, why not? Anything to keep Virginia blue.'."

7) Will House Democrats show up? After the House passed a bill last month to prohibit elected officials from attending party fundraisers during the legislative session, Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said House Democrats who voted for the ban would be hypocrites if they showed up at the dinner.

Several House Democrats were at the dinner, but House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) stayed home. "I don't vote for a bill that bans attendance at such events, or criticize the speaker for participating in his own, and then show up,'' Armstrong said.

8) Will this be Deeds's moment to shine? During his speech, Deeds stressed his humble upbringing as he tried to position himself as the candidate who will fight for the middle class. Deeds's populist speech brought back memories of former North Carolina senator John Edwards. Deeds spoke too fast, which left little opportunity for applause lines.

But it was clear inside the hall that many Virginia Democrats feel a special attachment to him. Few, if any, Democratic activists have anything negative to say about Deeds. The same can't be said for McAuliffe and Moran -- meaning Deeds is a serious contender for the nomination.

9) What does the term "Virginia Democrat" mean in 2009? If someone was dropped by parachute into the convention hall, they might have at times thought they were at a Democratic dinner in heavily unionized Michigan, not Virginia, a right-to-work state.

Deeds and Moran took shots at corporations and their chief executives. Their message ran somewhat counter to the state party's reputation for being pro-business and socially moderate. Of the three, McAuliffe, who has vowed to grow the state's economy, might be the one who emerges as the safe choice for the influential business community.

10) Does Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) make an appearance? Yes. Webb talked about his efforts on Capitol Hill to reform the nation's criminal justice system.

11) Can McAuliffe stick to the clock? Yes, McAuliffe's remarks were succinct. But his delivery at times seemed off, which was surprising, considering that he has extensive experience speaking before large audiences.

12) Does Gov. Timothy M. 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. But Kaine did not offer a detailed preview of his strategy at the dinner.

13) Are Virginia Democrats burned out on elections yet? About 3,000 people attended the dinner, which raised about $700,000 for the state party. But many in attendance failed to get riled up when McDonnell was mentioned, which could be a sign that the eventual nominee will have to work extra hard to energize the Democratic base in the fall.

14) Can Clinton keep his word? Yes. The former president stayed out of the primary battle for governor, even though McAuliffe is one of his best friends.

By Tim Craig  |  February 11, 2009; 11:14 AM ET
Categories:  Tim Craig  
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