Virginia Governor's race 2013: Terry McAuliffe emerging as frontrunner


(WJLA) - Come Tuesday night, if – as all the major polls suggest – Terry McAuliffe indeed wins his Virginia gubernatorial race against attorney general Ken Cuccinelli (R), the Democratic candidate will have pulled off a version of what the Boston Red Sox accomplished Wednesday night at Fenway Park with their win over St. Louis to win the World Series.

Worst to first.

Four years ago, while running for the same office, McAuliffe couldn’t even get out of the Democratic primary as the party’s nod went to Creigh Deeds. Hello Gov. Bob McDonnell.

But this is a different Terry McAuliffe, and perhaps most importantly, a new campaign operation steered by Robbie Mook – the rarely mentioned 33-year-old former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

To say this has been a disciplined campaign is missing a key adjective, for this, to be sure, has been an extremely disciplined campaign. It’s one that has hummed along almost seamlessly and somehow managed to make rhetoric about McAuliffe’s sometimes controversial business dealings, in effect, background noise to the electorate.

After all, according to the latest Real Clear Politics tracking numbers, McAuliffe is ahead by an average of 9 points among all the major polls – including a 12-point advantage earlier this week in the latest Washington Post barometer.

McAuliffe – to a degree, anyway -- toned down his flamboyant personality and almost always presented himself as an earnest, serious-minded candidate and not the guy whose 2007 book was titled, “What a Party – My life among Democrats, presidents, candidates, donors, activists, alligators and other wild animals.”

Also, he avoided major gaffes in all three debates, as did Cuccinelli, but also gave potential voters a different version of what they might have been expecting.

He has led Cuccinelli in every poll released going back to early this past summer, and slowly but steadily increased his advantage ever since in what, last spring, appeared to be a toss-up.

That’s back when Cuccinelli appeared to be offering a softer version of the guy whose 2013 book was titled, “The Last Line of Defense – The new fight for American Liberty,” which, among other things, proudly highlights his stridently conservative views about social issues. It’s not that be backed off his stands, he simply attempted to push them to the background.

For example, during one of his early town-hall-style meetings held throughout the state, this one in Fredericksburg and in front of a largely supportive crowd, a man in the audience said he was worried about what he perceived as eroding traditional family values and moral fabric in the state and wanted an assurance that Cuccinelli would govern in a way that addressed his concerns.

In response, Cuccinelli said he believes what he believes and that’s not going to change but quickly added the race is more about jobs than anything else.

That was then. It also was when he and his campaign were thrown off course by the Star Scientific scandal involving McDonnell and, initially, Cuccinelli, who was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Even so, Cuccinelli was realistic. “It’s a distraction, no question,” he said softly last spring while visiting an Alexandria landscaping business.

But as the weeks went on and Cuccinelli, at least according to the polling, didn’t appear to be gaining much positive traction, his campaign staff re-tooled the troops as well as the message, geared more toward his base than moderate voters.

Perhaps coincidentally, that’s also about the time McAuliffe’s huge advantage in campaign funds began to manifest itself more and more forcefully at a juncture where more or more people started paying more and more attention, most prominently through television ads that repeatedly have hammered Cuccinelli about his stands on social issues, among them his opposition to abortion and birth control.

That may well be a key reason Cuccinelli trails by some 20 points among women in most polls.

Thus the apparent pivot to the base. Cuccinelli spoke at a staunchly conservative group’s dinner which also featured Sen. Ted Cruz, architect of the government shutdown, although they didn’t appear together. The shutdown was the last thing Cuccinelli needed when at least still going through the motions of wooing moderates.

There was a rally with conservative talk-show firebrand Mark Levin. Recently he has attended rallies with Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite, and La. Gov. Bobby Jindal, all of whom share Cuccinelli’s fiercely negative opinion about Obamacare, or rather the Affordable Care Act.

Meanwhile, McAuliffe has held recent rallies with longtime friends former Secretary of State and likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and her husband, Bill, the hugely popular former president. Coming up it’s vice president Joe Biden on Monday and the day before it’ll be Barack Obama, whose popularity numbers are slipping amid problems with the Obamacare rollout but who nonetheless carried Virginia in the past two presidential elections.

Both Cuccinelli and McAuliffe, according to all the major polls that measure such things, have favorability ratings well below the 50-percent mark – just as nearly all pundits predicted more than six months ago.

So to say that “turnout will be pivotal” may be a cliché but it’s true, and the Mook Machine is doing its best to make that happen, as were Bill and Hillary in their speeches. Same goes for Team Cuccinelli, of course, but with limited spending ability, it’s difficult to see how a getting-out-the-base strategy can withstand the coming ad onslaught in the final few days.

For a variety of reasons, timing chief among them, Cuccinelli never could seem to catch a break in this campaign. And for a variety of reasons, Mook chief among them, McAuliffe more or less has glided through the campaign despite low favorability ratings that have been countered with an unwavering, consistent campaign strategy.

The Red Sox literally remade themselves after finishing last a year ago, just as McAuliffe did after his attempt four years prior.

It worked for Boston. Will it work for Terry McAuliffe?