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06.08.09

Hillary All Over Again?

Once a shoo-in for Virginia governor, Terry McAuliffe lost today’s Democratic primary—much like Hillary Clinton, whose presidential campaign he orchestrated. 

Terry McAuliffe's been using a line recently, but it's just not working.

“John Kennedy didn't say we should take a rocket halfway to the moon," the former chairman to both the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and now a first-time candidate in Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary said at a debate on May 19. One of his opponents, R. “Creigh” Deeds had asked McAuliffe how he would pay for his campaign promises, which ranged from giving “Martinsville a new high school gym” to “[making] Virginia the film capital of the country.”

McAuliffe may win yet, but no one wants to be the candidate heading into Election Day with downward momentum.

The Washington Post, apparently, wanted to take the rocket only halfway to the moon: Three days after the debate, the paper endorsed Deeds, a rural and obscure state senator, noting that “Mr. McAuliffe's promises have been as expansive as his personality, and he has offered no realistic way to foot the bill.”

Unlike McAuliffe, Deeds never had a Rolodex of national donors or Bill Clinton stumping for him around the state. But since the Post’s endorsement, Deeds has quietly overtaken McAuliffe in the polls. On Tuesday, something may happen in Virginia to remind Americans of the 2008 Democratic primary: The candidate with a huge initial advantage in fundraising and name recognition may lose. The giddy cheerleader behind Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign is in danger of becoming the next "Hillary in Iowa," in Virginia.

How did McAuliffe blow it? The Washington Post endorsement suggests McAuliffe was trying to tell Virginians what they wanted to hear instead of what they needed to know, but in fact Virginians did not want to hear or know anything at all. Voter registration, which ended in early May, was... ugly... and election officials are predicting a turnout of 3 to 5 percent on Tuesday. Who can blame Virginians? They just spent a full year carrying the burden of being one of the two or three biggest battleground states in a rather harrying presidential campaign season. Perhaps they've earned a right to a relaxing spell of political apathy.

Not that McAuliffe didn’t know this. He hoped to confuse the necessary few into voting for him by airing the most television ads and, when pressed, shouting the most nonsense about JFK and his moon. This is called "buying an election," and McAuliffe—a man of such vast private wealth that he claims releasing an exact net worth figure would endanger his family's safety—was meeting his payments on time.

But banking on apathy is risky. If only two people are voting, and they're only voting out of boredom, their votes can be easily persuaded by institutions of questionable intrinsic value but a certain nominal authority, like the editorial board of the Post. One might not expect that, in 2009, a penniless print newspaper, where the opinion pages consist of various huffy, tenured, "centrist" white men sneering among themselves about all the damn kids wearing dungarees and tattoos, could single-handedly turn an election on its head. But an average of polls since the Post's endorsement shows Deeds ahead—barely—by 4 percentage points and nearly doubling his pre-endorsement polling average from 17 to 29 percent. McAuliffe, on the other hand, has fallen in that same period from 36 to 25 percent, where he sits in a second-place tie with the less volatile poll-averager Brian Moran.

It was a "perfect storm" for Deeds, the rural "country lawyer" from southern Bath County, whose strategy had, until then, largely ignored the rich communist hotbed of Northern Virginia, where, you know, "all the voters are." But here was that region's newspaper briefly telling its yuppie readers, who didn’t seem to care which guy won whatever primary but may still, in the pit of their stomachs, have harbored some strength-of-the-democracy-rests-on-its-people moralistic urge to cast a ballot, to go with this Deeds guy. "Eh, sure," the engaged populace responded, and voila: Free votes for Creigh Deeds!

Sure, Tuesday's race was close to a tossup. What happened to McAuliffe’s first campaign as a candidate is a near replication of what happened to his last campaign as a chairman. Hillary Clinton, regardless of her true strengths and weaknesses, was riding the wave of inevitability and name-recognition until that one event, that one-of-seven-million debates, in October 2007, when she couldn't give a clear answer about whether illegal immigrants should be able to drive cars or whatever. Within weeks she was tied with John Edwards and Barack Obama, and she eventually came in third.

What Clinton suffered then and what her close friend and former associate Terry McAuliffe feared on Tuesday now demonstrates how airy and inflated a strategy it can be to rely on inevitability, party contacts, and puffy slogans—the factors that deliver early advantages—to win the damn thing in the end, when voters force themselves to spend three minutes picking a candidate, any candidate, through their careless but determinative self-informing rituals. McAuliffe may win yet, but no one wants to be the candidate heading into Election Day with downward momentum.

McAuliffe, for whatever reason, didn't do much to adjust. Only a few days ago, in one of his daily new ads, we heard him—speaking about two octaves higher than usual and in that rich, unhelpful Syracuse accent and—returning to The Line to defend, who knows, something about education spending:

"But President Kennedy didn't say we're going to halfway to the moon, he said we're goin' all the way."

The ad is titled "Moon." If only President Kennedy had been talking about Terry McAuliffe's campaign.

Jim Newell is associate editor of Wonkette.com and writes about local news for NBC Washington.