July 15 (Bloomberg) — In 1991, Zell Miller, then governor of Georgia and a Democrat, advised his colleague Bill Clinton of Arkansas that there were two guys he needed to run his likely presidential campaign: James Carville and Paul Begala.
“Who are they?” asked Clinton, a man well versed in Democratic politics. Even though they had had successes, including Miller’s election, Carville and Begala didn’t become a big deal until they ran Harris Wofford’s campaign in a special Pennsylvania Senate election in 1991. It was the signature contest of that off-year election cycle. A month later, Clinton hired the two young politicos for his successful presidential run.
This year, the signature race is the Virginia gubernatorial contest. The campaign manager of the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, is Robby Mook, a 33-year-old political wunderkind. For those who believe history repeats itself, there is chatter that another Clinton — Hillary — might turn to him, as the architect of the year’s most visible Democratic campaign, to direct her next presidential quest. Mook worked for her in 2008 but is the sort of fresh, new age, tech-savvy strategist that she lacked at the top of her campaign.
First he has to win in Virginia, a race that pits McAuliffe, a prolific Democratic fundraiser, successful former national party chairman and intimate of the Clintons, against the state’s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, one of the most prominent Republican social conservatives and a Tea Party favorite.
The competing strategies in this close contest are clear. They are trading ethical charges, which is probably a wash with voters. Cuccinelli is counting on his passionate base among social conservatives. The Virginia electorate that will turn out in November will be older, more white and evangelical than the voters who helped President Barack Obama carry the once reliable Republican stronghold by four points last year. If the voter profile had replicated that of the last governor’s race, in 2009, Obama would have lost.
“There are a lot more committed voters who will turn out for Ken than there are committed voters who’ll turn out for Terry,” asserts Chris LaCivita, a leading Cuccinelli adviser.
The Republicans are trying to tie Obama’s record around the Democratic candidate’s neck, especially the Affordable Care Act.
“Obamacare is the biggest impediment to job growth in the state,” Cuccinelli said in an impromptu interview last week. He was the first to bring a lawsuit against the health care measure, though without success.
The attorney general, comfortable his base will turn out, is focusing on jobs and the economy and de-emphasizing his controversial social positions. He has declared that abortion is as bad as slavery and that same-sex relationships violate the laws of nature and could be prosecuted. He’s really moving away from E.W. Jackson, the minister chosen by the conservative- dominated Republican state convention to be the party’s lieutenant governor nominee. Jackson has accused Obama of being a Muslim and an atheist — a tough trick — suggested yoga could lead to Satanism and that Planned Parenthood has been more harmful to blacks than the Ku Klux Klan.
The Democrats are quick to remind voters of Cuccinelli’s social views. At the same time, McAuliffe is warming to the debate over jobs and the economy. He is more comfortable than his opponent in talking to business types; he’s been shaking them down for campaign funds for decades. He has won the endorsements of leading Republican business figures and prominent former office holders.
In Virginia, “there is a centrist electorate, including the business community, which does turn out,” Mook says. He links McAuliffe to two popular former Democratic governors and current U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, as well as to the current Republican governor, Bob McDonnell.
“We are capturing the more moderate brand of Warner, Kaine and McDonnell,” Mook says.