Good Deeds

Can Bill Clinton help a Democrat get elected as governor of Virginia?

Terry McAuliffe campaigns with former President Bill Clinton. Click image to expand.
Terry McAuliffe campaigns with former President Bill Clinton

In their first prime-time debate last week, Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds derided his opponent, Republican Bob McDonnell, as “smooth talker.” But now Deeds is getting help from two of the party’s smoothest talkers: Terry McAuliffe and Bill Clinton. Next week, President Obama himself will make an appearance. It’s only a state race, but Democrats really don’t want to lose Richmond.

On Tuesday, about 500 people squeezed into a low-ceilinged room to see the three men speak at the Deeds headquarters in McLean, Va. With two weeks to go before the election and Deeds trailing McDonnell—the latest poll has him down 49 points to 41 points—it was time to bring out the big guns.

The location was a little awkward: The office space was formerly rented by the McAuliffe-for-governor campaign, which lost to Deeds in the primary. McAuliffe acknowledged as much. “Let me say personally it is great to be back in my old headquarters,” he told the audience, laughing. “It’s not how I thought I’d be back, but I can tell you it’s great.”

If McAuliffe had any reservations about Deeds—during the primary, McAuliffe dismissed his opponent’s critiques as “divisive politics of destruction that people are sick and tired of”—he hid it well. “Nov. 3 is gonna be the greatest comeback in the history of American politics, folks,” he said. And as a former frontrunner in the Democratic primary, he would know. “I can tell you from experience,” said McAuliffe, “don’t pay attention to the polls.”

McAuliffe soon yielded the podium to Bill Clinton. “I am here for about three reasons,” Clinton said. He proceeded to list seven—in no obvious order:

  • “I tried to help Terry McAuliffe beat Creigh Deeds. And we failed.”
  • “I respect people who win and who win fair and square.”
  • “I’m a lifetime Democrat.”
  • “I like this guy. I like Creigh Deeds.”
  • “I think he’d be the best choice for the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
  • “I know what kinds of diff a gov can make” when it comes to the economy.
  • “All the things Terry said.”

As for the nervous-making poll numbers, Clinton explained them this way: “Are the polls right? The answer is yes, no, or maybe.” Yes, he said, because they’re an accurate representation of a certain segment of public opinion. No, he said, because that segment is “not close to the profile of people I know who voted in the primary or in the general election in 2008.” And “the maybe is the thing that matters: The maybe is you. The maybe is what you do in the next two weeks.”

Clinton also landed a few jabs—another advantage of not being up for election. “My daughter’s generation has a slogan: Denial is not just a river in Egypt. It’s [also] apparently the political platform of the Republican Party in Virginia.”

Today’s event was part of an 11th-hour push by top Democrats in both Virginia and New Jersey, where they know the tight gubernatorial elections will be seen as bellwethers for the nation’s political mood. Indeed, the temptation to see the Deeds-McDonnell race as a referendum on Democrats is strong. In 2008, Virginia swung for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964. Losing New Jersey would be a major disappointment. Losing Virginia would be a symbolic reversal of the Obama wave.

The big question for Deeds has been how much to hug Obama. He has been careful not to tie himself too closely to the Democrats’ most controversial policies, particularly on climate change and health care reform. McDonnell, meanwhile, has done everything he can to link them, claiming that Deeds supports cap-and-trade and challenging him to denounce the administration’s plan to overhaul health care. It has also been rumored that Deeds’ middle name is Hussein.

Then again, why distance yourself from the man responsible for turning Virginia blue? Democrats’ fears can be summed up in one word: turnout. Obama won the state by mobilizing an unprecedented number of young people as well as liberals and moderates from Northern Virginia. It’s hard to imagine the same turnout in an off-year for a candidate with about as much star power as Barack Obama’s hangnail.

Hence the last-minute celebrity injection. Clinton and McAuliffe bring the spotlight this week. Obama will appear at an event with Deeds next Tuesday at an undisclosed location. Perhaps some of their charm will rub off on Deeds. According to many in the room, it worked. “I think he was fantastic,” said Faye Bazemore of Reston. “Within the last few weeks, people have really taken notice.”

Deeds has also milked the Obama mojo on a more indirect level. Earlier this month, he crisscrossed the state on a “hope and opportunity tour.” “Are y’all fired up?” asked Steve Shannon, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, at today’s rally. “Are you ready to go?” And Deeds’ Web site owes an obvious debt to Obama’s, from the font to the colors to the overall look.

But over the next two weeks, Deeds may need the double down on the Obama playbook. He can’t match Obama’s legendary get-out-the-vote operation, but he’ll need to come close. A little smooth-talking can’t hurt, either.