Va. Politics Rattled By Brash Gubernatorial Bid

It's just not The Virginia Way.

In the past few weeks, former Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe entered the Old Dominion's governor's race with the subtlety of a runaway cement truck, wrecking the slow rhythms of the state's musty political traditions.

Ask McAuliffe whether he cares.

"Nobody can sit back and do things the way we used to do them in governors' races. If we do that, we're not going to win," McAuliffe, a career Democratic money man but first-time candidate, told The Associated Press.

It was already an important showdown year in Virginia pitting a Democratic Party at the top of its game against a once-dominant Republican Party with its back against a wall.

The gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey — the only major elections this year — also carry a heightened political role since Democrats seized control of Congress in 2006 and won the White House in 2008. They also set the stage for the congressional elections in 2010 in the middle of President Barack Obama's first term.

McAuliffe parachuted into the governor's race just as the sitting governor, Tim Kaine, became the new DNC chief with an implied mandate to sustain his party's success this fall. Now the race is turbocharged.

McAuliffe, who turns 52 Monday, filed as a candidate six days after Barack Obama became the first Democrat for president to win Virginia in 44 years. The Nov. 4 election also gave Democrats the state's second Senate seat and three more seats in the House, meaning they now hold six of the state's 11 House seats.

Within six weeks, McAuliffe banked nearly $1 million in campaign donations.

In January, McAuliffe used his portfolio of major donors to raise hundreds of thousands more, including about $350,000 from a single New York Park Avenue reception at the elbow of his political godfather, former President Bill Clinton.

McAuliffe invited his backers to pack the state Democratic Party's enormous annual fundraising gala Saturday that conveniently features Clinton.

The voluble, naturally caffeinated McAuliffe opened last month with a blitz through dozens of Virginia cities and towns. He became the first Virginia gubernatorial candidate ever to air ads in January, capped by a 30-second Super Bowl spot seen only in Hampton Roads, an East Coast maritime and military hub and the state's second most populous region. Another ad debuted Wednesday in the Richmond market. All of McAuliffe's ads target specific regional economic concerns and his pledge to fix them.

It's left his two rivals for June's bruising primary winded.

"How can you respond to a whirlwind?" said state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, 51, the only elected officeholder in the race not leaving his post early to run and raise money full-time.

"I'll have enough money at the end of the day that people know there is a choice," he said.

Brian J. Moran, 49, of Alexandria chaired the House of Delegates Democratic caucus before he abruptly resigned his seat in December.

"Terry's ads are merely polls and promises. They're not based on any experience and knowledge of how to get things done in Virginia," said Moran, who has been the most aggressive in the race against McAuliffe.

McAuliffe, chief fundraiser for Bill Clinton and for his wife's 2008 presidential bid, moved to the Washington, D.C., suburb of McLean, Va., in the early 1990s, just before the Clintons moved into the White House. Some Virginia Democrats, however, regard McAuliffe as a 21st century carpetbagger — an opportunistic party crasher with no sweat equity in Virginia politics.

"You don't join the church today and run for pope tomorrow," 40-year Democratic activist Pixie Bell of Fairfax County groused last fall as McAuliffe held rallies across Virginia for Obama while judging prospects for a run of his own.

Where McAuliffe uses television and an exhausting 20-hour-a-day schedule of personal appearances to preemptively define himself, Deeds and Moran in particular rely on local and regional Democrats for endorsements.

"Terry has a lot of ground to make up. He hasn't been involved in Virginia. He's trying to make up for two decades with six months of 30-second ads," Moran said.

Among his endorsers are Democratic mayors of some of Virginia's largest cities, former House colleagues and many members of the state party steering committee.

Deeds lost the 2005 attorney general's race by 323 votes out of nearly 2 million cast to Republican Robert F. McDonnell, now the likely GOP nominee for governor.

Deeds shrugs and grins at McAuliffe's fast start: "This doesn't affect me at all. I'm just going to do what I do."


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