ABC News' David Chalian reports: After spending the better part of the last two decades as Cheerleader-in-Chief for his friends, Bill and Hillary Clinton, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe is trying his hand at quarterback today.
In his inaugural effort as a candidate, Mr. McAuliffe’s name will be on the ballot today as he seeks support from Virginia Democrats in his quest to become the party’s nominee for governor.
Mr. McAuliffe served as national chairman for Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign. If the 2008 primary results had turned out differently, McAuliffe may have found himself spending his January settling into a cushy Clinton administration job. Instead, just seven months after Clinton ended her campaign, McAuliffe could be found stumping from Roanoke to Arlington highlighting the virtues of potential renewable energy to be gained from all the chicken waste produced in Virginia.
Recent polls have shown the race among Mr. McAuliffe and his two Democratic opponents, State Senator Creigh Deeds and former State Delegate Brian Moran, to be closely contested. However, it has been Mr. Deeds who has come from behind, touting his influential endorsement by the Washington Post, and surging in the homestretch.
The former Clinton fundraiser extraordinaire put his rolodex to work, but this time he was asking for himself. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, a group that tracks political donations in Virginia, McAuliffe had raised $6.9 million as of last week. Compare that to Mr. Moran’s $4.8 million haul and Mr. Deeds’ $3.8 million fundraising effort, both of whom had been declared candidates long before McAuliffe launched his campaign.
His large campaign bank account has allowed McAuliffe to pound the airwaves in the critical (and expensive) Northern Virginia/DC tv market in the closing days of the campaign.
McAuliffe’s closing message is focused on convincing late deciding voters that he is the most electable candidate for the November general election against Republican Bob McDonnell, the former Virginia Attorney General.
“[Republicans] say they are worried about me. They should be worried about me because I will take it to him,” McAuliffe said in a Sunday pep talk to volunteers at his Roanoke campaign office, one of 14 field offices he has opened around the commonwealth.
“Let’s get those undecideds and remind them that I am the only guy that can beat Bob McDonnell,” he added.
The primary is likely to be an extremely low turnout affair. The battle for votes centers on two key fronts: demography and geography.
Roughly one-third (and perhaps more) of the Democratic primary electorate is expected to come from the DC suburbs in Northern Virginia, home turf for both McAuliffe and Moran but where Deeds is making some headway with that Washington Post endorsement. Sen. Deeds hails from Bath County in the Western part of the commonwealth in the Shenandoah Valley.
And African-Americans are expected to make up approximately 25% - 30% of the primary electorate which explains why McAuliffe has been advertising on black radio stations and enlisting his buddy Bill Clinton to record robo calls targeted to African American households.
The significant black vote also explains why McAuliffe’s opponents are eager to remind voters that he was opposed to Barack Obama’s candidacy in the primaries last year while working for Hillary Clinton.
"The fact is, if Terry McAuliffe had his way, Barack Obama wouldn't be our president today," intoned the narrator in one of Brian Moran’s radio ads targeted to African-American voters.
Most Virginia political observers believe a larger than expected turnout could favor McAuliffe who has poured a ton of resources into his field organization. But that kind of large turnout may not materialize.
Virginia is home to one of two marquee gubernatorial contests this year. New Jersey is home to the other high profile race. Republicans are eager to win back both of those states as a sign that they have turned the corner from the disastrous 2006 and 2008 election cycles for their party.
National Democrats believe that Gov. Corzine, who is clearly vulnerable, has a potentially clearer path to victory in November as an incumbent in what has recently proven to be a reliably Democratic state, than any Democrat has in Virginia.
All three Democrats running are seeking to extend the recent trend in Virginia of electing Democrats statewide. Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and Jim Webb’s victories all were achieved, in part, due to shifting demographics in the state. Barack Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia’s electoral votes since Lyndon Johnson did so in 1964.
McAuliffe continues to make the case that he is the best equipped candidate to keep Virginia in the Democratic column. He has demonstrated an ability to step from the shadows into the political spotlight as a candidate. Now his test is to prove he can be a victorious one.