Terry McAuliffe is Barack Obama

The ultimate Clintonite reinvents himself to win over young voters and black voters in Virginia -- and becomes the favorite to win next month's Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Published May 14, 2009 10:21AM (EDT)

It was getting late Monday night, and Biz Markie had been playing hit after hit from his laptop at a nightclub in the D.C. suburbs, running through different sounds from the '80s and '90s -- a little "Livin' on a Prayer" here, a little "The Freaks Come Out at Night" there, then the first verse or two of "The Choice Is Yours." Suddenly the club's lights went down all the way, and a spotlight shone out onto the stage. Biz stopped DJing and started singing "Just a Friend," the single that shot him up the rap charts 20 years ago -- but with a strange new twist in the lyrics. Instead of, "But you say he's just a friend," the song's chorus became, "Because Terry is our friend."

That's "Terry" as in Terry McAuliffe. And this has been, for most of 2009, how McAuliffe rolls. The consummate Democratic Party insider -- and the single most loyal supporter of both Bill and Hillary Clinton over the years -- is now running in Virginia's gubernatorial campaign, trying to become the state's very own Barack Obama. Polls show he's got the lead, and the momentum, with less than a month before the Democratic primary on June 9. McAuliffe says stepping up from campaign chairman to candidate was a natural fit. "It's fun doing it for yourself," he told Salon Wednesday. "You got control."

If he wins the nomination, the general election that would follow might give the political world the first hint of an answer to two questions: One, just how blue is Virginia these days? The state's demographics have shifted; this isn't the same Virginia that Clinton lost twice in the 1990s. But it still isn't reliably in the Democratic column. How well a nationally prominent fundraiser who's never so much as run for dogcatcher will do seeking to become chief executive of a purple state remains to be seen. The second question -- which a McAuliffe loss in the primary might help settle, too -- is, can the Obama campaign's strategy and grass-roots tactics work with a rich white guy at the top of the ticket instead of Barack Obama?

At Monday night's party, a $20 fundraiser that drew a crowd of BlackBerry-toting 20-somethings who looked like they had arrived directly from their jobs on Capitol Hill, Biz Markie was only the warmup act. The main attraction -- besides McAuliffe, of course, who rarely gives the impression he thinks anyone else is the main attraction -- was will.I.am, one of Obama's most famous celebrity fans last year. Introducing the singer from the stage, McAuliffe provided a heavily edited history of their political friendship.

"In 2005, I was the chairman of the big national Rock the Vote dinner, and we gave out two awards, and I'm happy to say that we gave Will an award, but we also got to introduce him to our other award winner -- the brand-new senator from the state of Illinois, Barack Obama," McAuliffe boasted. "So they got together and they did some great things -- brought our party together. He did the 'Yes We Can' video -- 55 million people saw that, just incredible -- and we were one, we all came together to fight." That was true -- sort of. The video did inspire millions of Obama's supporters, but it appeared in February 2008, when Obama was battling McAuliffe's candidate, Hillary Clinton –- when McAuliffe was Hillary's campaign chairman. John McCain hadn't even clinched the GOP nomination yet.

McAuliffe, though, would like you to forget about all that, especially if you live in Virginia. To win the Democratic nod for governor in a three-way race, and then to win the general election in a contest Republicans desperately want to take to show they're on the comeback trail, he'll need to emulate the plan that helped Obama blow Hillary Clinton out in last February's Virginia primary and then win the commonwealth in November's election by 5 points over McCain. McAuliffe is banking on bringing out a good chunk of the nearly half a million new voters who registered in Virginia last year, when Obama became the first Democrat to carry the state in a presidential election since 1964. The higher turnout is on primary day, June 9, the better McAuliffe and his aides will feel; if it's well above the 155,000 who voted in the 2006 Senate primary between Jim Webb and Harris Miller, that's good for McAuliffe. One aide said they expect between 200,000 and 400,000 voters -- though that's a range big enough to drive Bill Clinton's motorcade through.

So McAuliffe is aiming his primary campaign squarely at young voters and black voters, who formed the bulk of the new registrants and were key parts of Obama's base last fall. Both McAuliffe and rival Brian Moran are from Northern Virginia, and the region's white suburban liberals account for about a third of the Democratic primary vote. But significantly, about a third of the Democratic primary electorate in the Clinton-Obama contest was black. The state's African-American population is heavily concentrated in the South and East, but all three Democratic candidates are white men from Northern Virginia or the mountains. With no contender an obvious choice for one of the party's biggest voting blocs, McAuliffe is making his play, betting that he can put together a coalition like the one Obama built.

Besides will.I.am, McAuliffe is also touring the state with Hillary Clinton's husband, Bill, this week, drawing nearly 700 people out in the middle of the day Wednesday in the D.C. suburbs of Herndon and Annandale. But his campaign team is more Obama than Clinton. Several top aides and advisors worked for Obama, including McAuliffe's polling firm, Benenson Strategy Group, and his ad maker, Jim Margolis. (Other top staffers worked on Mark Warner and Tim Kaine's races in the state, and for Hillary Clinton in the presidential contest.) Even his campaign logo, a silhouette of Virginia painted to look like a rising sun, evokes Obama's.

In fact, McAuliffe is talking about the current president so much you'd think last year's long primary never happened. "Barack Obama needs a partner in Virginia," McAuliffe hollered Monday night, his voice hoarse from a campaign schedule that even aides decades younger than he is sometimes find tiring. "I'll be that partner." He repeated the line almost verbatim Wednesday appearing with Clinton.

For a backroom guy who's just stepping out at the front of his first campaign, McAuliffe does have a few advantages that make his bid less quixotic than it might seem at first glance. One, which won't surprise anyone who remembers the hundreds of millions of dollars he raised for the Democratic Party when Clinton was president, is cash. By the end of March, McAuliffe had raised $4.2 million for his campaign -- that's more than Creigh Deeds and Brian Moran, his Democratic opponents, and Bob McDonnell, the only Republican candidate, had raised combined. He was already well known outside his northern Virginia home base before he got into the race, unlike Moran; Obama sent McAuliffe out on the stump around the state for him last fall. (McAuliffe has lived in northern Virginia for decades, though his campaign can be skittish about national interest in the race, preferring to play up his state roots.)


Rivals say money won't matter. "There is a myth out there that to take [McDonnell] on, we need the best fundraiser in the world," said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for Moran's campaign. "The last three elections in Virginia, we had the money, and now the DNC chair is Tim Kaine. We'll have the money. Are we going to have a candidate that can stand up to the relentless Republican attack?" But that could be just spin. McAuliffe's ads have been on TV longer than the others, and -- crucially, in an election that will come down to turnout -- he's got 14 field offices to help get his voters to the polls.

Another McAuliffe trademark is enthusiasm. "I love it, I'm having a great time," McAuliffe told Salon Wednesday. "But in fairness, I'm always having a great time." It takes some work to fire a political rally up more than Bill Clinton can, but on Wednesday, it was McAuliffe who finally got a small crowd in Herndon cheering, while Clinton stood by, his hands behind his back, nodding as he watched his friend go. A couple of nights earlier, at the will.I.am event, he had zoomed through his stump speech so eagerly it started to sound a little crazed: "We need wind farms, we need to build wind farms all over the coast of Virginia Beach," McAuliffe said. "Biodiesel, chicken waste -- we need it all!"

"Terry McAuliffe is the most positive human being I've ever met in my life," said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a Democratic consultant who masterminded Warner's gubernatorial victory in 2001 by appealing to rural voters (and who, in a sign of how much the state has changed since then, spent the last few days turkey hunting -- he's not working for any candidate in this race). "He could fall off the Empire State Building and say, 'What an opportunity, to get this kind of break.'"

That kind of energy can cut both ways, though. McAuliffe has managed to keep his foot out of his mouth so far, and he hasn't provided any of the embarrassing moments people who know him well had feared. But a tendency toward overpromotion may haunt him; he's already had to parse his claims to have created thousands of jobs during his business career, by clarifying that none of them were actually in Virginia. Sometimes, he seems to just get carried away. On Wednesday, he declared Bill Clinton was "the greatest president in our nation's history." For that matter, on Monday, he had declared Biz Markie "the greatest DJ in the history of DJs," and then introduced will.I.am as "the second greatest DJ in the world." It's also unclear how well McAuliffe the campaigner would take to being Gov. McAuliffe, living in Richmond and spending his time on picayune state matters.

Not that the GOP's guy, McDonnell, is a perfect candidate. The state's former attorney general, he left a long legacy as a fierce conservative in the General Assembly, with some potentially problematic positions along the way. For example, six years ago, he told the Newport News Daily Press that engaging in anal or oral sex might disqualify someone from becoming a judge in Virginia, because of the state's laws against sodomy; asked whether he'd ever violated the law, McDonnell answered, "Not that I can recall." That comment might resurface in the campaign. "I might have forgotten where my car keys were, and I might have even forgotten where my car was, but there's a few things in life you never forget," Saunders told Salon. "A lot of conservative bubbas out here ain't gonna vote for somebody if they don't recall whether or not they've ever committed sodomy."

More recently, he said he was "sort of unemployed," because he quit the attorney general's job to run for governor -- even though he's gone back on the payroll of the law firm where he used to be a partner. The Democratic Governors Association has already dumped more than $2 million into a Virginia offshoot that's running ads painting McDonnell as out of touch.

Republicans think McAuliffe's ties to the Clintons will be more of a problem than Democrats do; a lot of Democrats who look at Virginia now think anyone who still harbors ill will toward Bill Clinton probably isn't a swing voter anymore, anyway. The GOP is also glad they've got a candidate ready to go already, after a series of bruising primaries on their side helped Democrats get an early start in previous contests. "It's the first time in a while where the roles are reversed," said Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, which has funneled plenty of money to McDonnell already.

So a McAuliffe-McDonnell general election could be a wild one. "[McAuliffe] has far better candidate skills than the other Democrats in the race, and he has resources," said Bob Holsworth, a political scientist who is tracking the race closely on his Virginia Tomorrow blog. "On the other hand, I think he's very vulnerable because of his connections to the Clintons, because he's running to be the governor but he spends a lot of his time as what I call 'partisan-in-chief.' It's a little more difficult for him to always run to the middle."

One national Democratic operative who's watching the Virginia race closely said McAuliffe had run the best campaign of the party's three candidates so far, but would still be an underdog against McDonnell: "If you run this campaign 100 times, Terry McAuliffe wins 45." The Democratic base might be firmly behind McAuliffe, but the independent voters who helped Obama last year would still be up for grabs. "He's doing well with a Democrats' must-win constituents," like women and black voters, said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm that found McAuliffe pulling away from the other two candidates in a recent poll. "The question is what percentage of white males is he going to be able to add into that."

But none of that seems to bother McAuliffe, who cheerfully refused to acknowledge the reality that Obama had won the Democratic presidential fight last year until long after less optimistic people would have given up. "On June 10, we need to be unified as a party," he told the crowd just before he surrendered the mike to will.I.am on Monday night. "If you're supporting another candidate, you put that sign down on June 10, we pick up the sign of the nominee of the Democratic Party, and we go forward as one party, unified." It was vintage McAuliffe -- calling for unity, while making clear he figured he'd be the one everyone else unified behind anyway. And he said it just energetically enough that you had to wonder if he was right. Maybe, after all, yes, Terry can.


By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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