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Terry McAuliffe a force of nature in Virginia race

The political veteran hogs much of the limelight in Tuesday's three-way Democratic primary for governor. Still, it's unclear whether he will rouse or annoy voters.

June 09, 2009|Faye Fiore

VIENNA, VA. — Terry McAuliffe, Democratic candidate for Virginia governor, had a rare morning off from campaigning before he was to be at the Viva Vienna Memorial Day street festival, so he spent it throwing out old bottles of salad dressing.

It started when a jar of Kansas City barbecue sauce caught his eye, and it occurred to him that he might have picked that up when he was chairman of the Democratic National Committee, which was a lot longer ago than the shelf life of barbecue sauce. That led to an examination of the expiration dates of every bottle in the fridge. After that he started on the soup cans in the cupboard. Then it was time for the fair.

If it's possible for a human being to be in constant motion, McAuliffe comes close. His booming voice has a way of refocusing the mind, like a 6-foot-2, 205-pound human weather front hurling thunderbolts that make people stop what they're doing and examine the source.

His boundless energy -- he watches action movies to fall asleep -- has served him well over three decades of Democratic politics. He once wrestled an alligator for a $15,000 contribution to Jimmy Carter's reelection campaign, prompting the then-president to inquire about his health. Most people know him as Bill Clinton's chief fundraiser and golf buddy, and as Hillary Rodham Clinton's never-surrender presidential campaign chairman who antagonized supporters of Barack Obama by pushing her candidacy long after it was obvious Obama would be the nominee.

But McAuliffe's greatest strength could be his greatest problem here in the Old Dominion, where he is locked in a three-way race for the Democratic nomination. His opponents have sought to frame him as more Washington than Richmond, a slick fundraiser who never held public office but thinks he can run the state.

"Terry is kind of an operator," said Stu Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst in Washington. "That gives him contacts and resources in high places, but it also makes it a little difficult to sell him to people who think of themselves as Virginians, not Hollywood celebrities or Palm Beach billionaires, but regular folks who live in Norfolk."

Funds and flair

Democrats have been on a roll in once-reliably Republican Virginia: two consecutive governorships, a U.S. Senate seat and Obama's victory, the first for a Democrat in a presidential election here since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Now McAuliffe, 52, has brought his presidential-sized campaign to this little state. He faces two known quantities in today's primary: state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, an unvarnished country lawyer from rural Bath County, and former state legislator Brian Moran.

Because the three agree on almost every issue, this has become a contest of money and style. With 30 years of fundraising experience and powerful friends, McAuliffe has far out-raised his opponents -- more than $4.2 million at last count; his first ad went up six months before election day, almost unheard of in a statewide race.

He has hogged much of the media spotlight with an arsenal of stories that includes rummaging through President Clinton's White House drawers for a pair of clean shorts and having his leg rubbed by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. (By contrast, the local media confuse photos of Moran with his look-alike Virginia congressman brother, Jim, and Deeds' native drawl prompted a voter to wonder whether he endorsed carrying guns in a restaurant or a restroom.)

"There is Terry and the two non-Terrys," Rothenberg explained, adding that the GOP is rooting for McAuliffe to face its man in November, Bob McDonnell, a former attorney general and self-described common sense conservative. "They can caricature McAuliffe easily as a rich lobbyist and political insider who saw a vacant governorship and decided to go to Virginia and buy it."

Odd one out

McAuliffe fights the perception that he is a carpetbagger: He has lived in upscale McLean for 17 years with his wife, Dorothy, raising five children. Still, he has emerged as the force to be reckoned with. Some polls show him ahead, though many voters remain undecided.

It's hard to say whether McAuliffe's spark will rouse or annoy Virginians, who have never favored politicians with a high RPM. (Think retired Republican Sen. John W. Warner, a silver-haired Southerner nicknamed "Stuffed Shirt" by his former wife Elizabeth Taylor.)

"Let's shake it up!" McAuliffe thunders -- this is his mantra -- at a lethargic crowd at the fair. A Southern humidity melts snow cones and wilts shirts, and McAuliffe's peppy entrance is almost jarring.

His red golf shirt and wavy hair make him easy to spot as he lopes along Church Street in his oxblood loafers, shaking hands, dropping Gs and stumping tirelessly, reminiscent of Bill Clinton, his best friend.

McAuliffe has been compared to a used car salesman and a carnival barker, at odds with Virginia's Southern pace. He is the first to say he doesn't fit the mold. He trades on his entrepreneurial ingenuity. At 14, he started paving driveways in Syracuse, N.Y., to save for college. By 30, he was one of the nation's youngest bank chairmen. As its head, he pulled the DNC out of bankruptcy.

McAuliffe hopes Virginians will see his bold personality as a tonic for their economic doldrums. Foreclosures are up 19%, unemployment is 20% in some parts. McAuliffe promises wind farms and green jobs.

"My argument is, if you like the way things are in Richmond, don't vote for me," McAuliffe says in a sidewalk interview, sweat seeping through his golf shirt. "But if you want to shake it up, you want some big, bold new leadership here, then consider me for governor. I'll shake it up."

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faye.fiore@latimes.com

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