Va. Democratic Race For Governor Attracts Spotlight

New Jersey and Virginia have gubernatorial races this year. Republicans hope that one or both of these contests will give them a comeback after their crushing losses in 2006 and 2008. In Virginia, three Democrats are competing for their party's nomination.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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And I'm David Greene, in for Renee Montagne. Elections come in only two states this year: New Jersey and Virginia. Both choose governors in odd numbered years, and you can thank them for their role in propping up the economy. By coming at an otherwise quiet time, the elections help to keep a certain number of political operatives and pundits employed.

INSKEEP: Political pros watch these votes for a forecast of bigger elections to come. In Virginia, the first battle is inside the Democratic Party. Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: Statewide primaries in Virginia usually attract little voter interest. In the last two, only 2 or 3 percent of registered voters turned out. And the campaigns are usually civilized and low key. But there's one candidate running for Virginia governor this year who doesn't have a low key bone in his body.

Mr. TERRY MCAULIFFE (Democratic Candidate for Governor of Virginia): How are you? Good to see you. What's happening?

LIASSON: That's Terry McAuliffe, former Democratic Party chair, uber fundraiser for both Bill and Hillary Clinton, a multimillionaire businessman with a larger-than-life personality.

Mr. MCAULIFFE: Hey, guys.

LIASSON: He's a hyperactive hugger and handshaker who once happily referred to himself as a hustler. On this day, he's in an Arlington, Virginia bar, firing up his own supporters with the same over-the-top zeal he once brought to the Clinton's campaign.

Mr. MCAULIFFE: I mean, never before in a Virginia gubernatorial election have we had 14 offices. There's not enough phone lines. There are so many people showing up.

LIASSON: And that's not all.

Mr. MCAULIFFE: I just got one of the biggest endorsements you could get. The largest, actually, netroots activism blog in Virginia.

LIASSON: And there's more.

Mr. MCAULIFFE: It is extraordinary what we're building. People from all walks of life...

LIASSON: McAuliffe has lived in Virginia for 17 years, but he's never been involved in statewide politics before, says analyst Bob Holsworth, who runs the political Web site Virginia Tomorrow.

Mr. BOB HOLSWORTH (Virginia Tomorrow): And so he's in some ways a parachute candidate, somebody who's come in - a national figure who happens to live here and now would like to run for governor. And he's run a very energetic campaign.

LIASSON: McAuliffe has worked hard to get up to speed on Virginia issues. On Wednesday, night he rattled off statistics about chicken waste and teacher salaries and mandatory renewable energy standards. But there's also a potential backlash, says Holsworth, because of McAuliffe's money and his image as a carpetbagger.

Mr. HOLSWORTH: He's impressed a lot of people in Virginia, but at the same time, there is these lingering resentments inside the Democratic Party, particularly among those people associated with the two other candidates who believe that Brian Moran and Creigh Deeds have really toiled in the vineyards in Virginia for so many years. And why should this guy come in and reap the fruits of their labors?

LIASSON: Brian Moran, the former Democratic leader in the state House of Delegates and the brother of Congressman Jim Moran, has been the most aggressive in going after McAuliffe with television ads like this.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man: McAuliffe has made a fortune investing, sometimes in companies that went bust, laid off thousands and drained employee savings. Barack Obama ran against exactly the kind of big money politics that McAuliffe represents.

Brian Moran worked with Mark Warner...

LIASSON: But it's Terry McAuliffe, the Clinton's best friend, who's actually running the Obama-style campaign here. He's got the resources to invest in an elaborate field operation - just like Obama's - that he hopes will help him expand the traditionally tiny Democratic primary electorate, and he's as relentless as candidate Obama was in pushing his version of the change mantra.

Mr. MCAULIFFE: You need a governor that's going to come in, shake it up. You need a governor that's going to come in and shake up education. You need a guy to come in, to shake it up with a business background, shake up transportation. We need to shake it up.

LIASSON: The third candidate is state Senator Creigh Deeds from rural western Virginia. He's the only candidate who's run statewide before. Recently, he was the surprise recipient of an endorsement from the local paper in voter-rich northern Virginia: the Washington Post.

At a roadside press conference on Wednesday, Deeds made it clear he hopes that will help change the dynamic of the race.

State Senator CREIGH DEEDS (Democrat, Virginia): And I'm proud as I can be to have the Washington Post endorsement. The Post says, quote, I "would make the best governor in the Warner-Kaine�tradition." And that I was, quote, "the best choice for northern Virginia." They jumped over two northern Virginia candidates to say those things. I promise if I'm elected...

LIASSON: Whoever wins the primary on June 9th will face Republican candidate Bob McDonnell, the former state attorney general. And at that point, the race turns into a national proxy.

Mr. HOLSWORTH: So in this odd, indirect way I think Obama's going to be on the ballot here.

LIASSON: That's Bob Holsworth again. He thinks the November election will become a field test for the Republicans to see if they can beat the Democrats in a state President Obama has paid a lot of attention to over the past four years.

Mr. HOLSWORTH: Barack Obama was the first Democrat to carry Virginia in 44 years. If Obama can be defeated in Virginia in a state where Tim Kaine, the governor, is now the head of the Democratic National Committee, it will be a tremendous, symbolic victory for the Republicans. And my sense is that they will view the race as kind of a referendum on how to defeat Democrats in 2010.

LIASSON: And the Republicans may have something else on their side: history. For the last 32 years, the party that holds the White House has always lost the Virginia governor's race.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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