Will Dems (and McAuliffe) Buck Tradition in Virginia?

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Win McNamee / Getty

Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe, left, campaigns with former President Bill Clinton, center, in Herndon, Va.

Just a few months after Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate since L.B.J. to win the state of Virginia, the party is about to find out if the record turnout of that historic election can be replicated to achieve another milestone. Traditionally, Old Dominion Democrats have tended to nominate statewide candidates from the more conservative, southern part of Virginia — those who can appeal to enough moderate voters near Richmond while still holding on to the more Democratic-leaning north — politicians like Senator Jim Webb, retiring Governor Tim Kaine and current gubernatorial hopeful Creigh Deeds. But when Virginia Democrats go to the polls Tuesday to pick their nominee for governor, they'll be choosing between Deeds and two decidedly more liberal or Beltway establishment candidates, former Democratic National Committee head Terry McAuliffe and former northern Virginia State Representative Brian Moran.

"Democrats worry that neither McAuliffe because of his baggage nor Moran because of his liberalism can win in November," says Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia. "I've heard this everywhere among activists, and they are the only people who will show up at primaries." (See pictures of 60 years of election night drama.)

Still, in a contest of challengers, name recognition can count for a lot, and in that regard McAuliffe entered the race in the strongest position of the three. Until recently, in fact, the outspoken former chairman of Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign enjoyed double-digit leads in some polls. A savvy, veteran fundraiser, he's raked in $6.9 million, nearly as much as his two opponents combined: Moran has raised $4.8 million and Deeds $3.8 million. McAuliffe, who has made a fortune in real estate and Internet investments mostly with Democratic donors, bills himself as the candidate best qualified to bring jobs to Virginia. He is so intent on following Obama's successful playbook that he is in essence trying to replicate the former senator's grass-roots campaign. In the final 72-hour sprint to the finish line, the McAuliffe campaign has been working to make more than 1 million calls and knock on more than 85,000 doors. At the same time, in just six months McAuliffe has built the closest thing to a Democratic machine that Virginia has ever seen, benefiting from union endorsements and the help of President Bill Clinton, who has made several swings through Virginia on McAuliffe's behalf. (Read about the Virginia polls.)

And in the war of endorsements that the primary race seems to have become in its frenzied last week, McAuliffe boasts two heavy hitters, at least on the national stage. He spent Friday morning promoting the support of Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer (who also happens to be head of the Democratic Governors Association, though he was careful to underline that his endorsement was strictly personal) and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. "To have Governor Schweitzer and Governor Rendell as validators to say Terry McAuliffe can create jobs, that given our experience as governors we have confidence in this guy, that's important," McAuliffe said standing under a Corner Bakery patio awning to protect against the driving rain in Arlington.

An hour later, in nearby Alexandria, Moran was hosting a ladies' lunch for more than 100 "women for Moran." When asked about McAuliffe's last-minute endorsements and get-out-the-vote efforts, Moran scoffed. "I have support all across Virginia and that's exactly what we need in a governor. The mayors of Hampton Roads and Richmond and Petersburg and here, of course, in Alexandria, all across northern Virginia, are supporting me because they know I know their issues," he said. Moran, a former prosecutor, was chairman of the legislature's Democratic caucus until he left office in December. He is also the brother of Representative Jim Moran, who represents Virginia's 8th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. (See 10 elections that changed America.)

Just after lunchtime on Friday back in Arlington, Deeds cheerfully ignored the rain while greeting voters at the Clarendon Metro Station. Half an hour late, Deeds cited the one excuse that is always plausible in northern Virginia: traffic, literally the top issue of the campaign. Though his blue suit was turning dark around the shoulders with moisture, Deeds wandered about without an umbrella shaking hands with everyone in sight, including the media. Deeds, who represents rural Bath County in western Virginia, had languished in third place until he received his own big endorsement, this one a surprisingly resounding one from the Washington Post, that has helped double his poll numbers in the D.C. suburbs, put him in the lead in some new statewide polls and spurred a last-minute surge in fundraising. Of the trio, Deeds also holds the distinction of having run against Bob McDonnell, who last week won the GOP primary in Virginia, in 2005 for attorney general; after being outspent 2 to 1, he lost by only 323 votes. "Virginia is still more purple than blue, and Mr. Deeds' moderate platform [Deeds is pro-gun and pro-business in the mold of Kaine and former Governor Mark Warner] would have the broadest appeal," the Post said in its endorsement, reminding voters that Deeds' is the only sure-to-win formula Virginia Democrats have in their playbooks.

When asked about his own reportedly paltry get-out-the-vote effort and McAuliffe's out-of-town endorsements, Deeds, in his usual aw-shucks persona, stammered out: "I can't rattle that stuff off the top of my head. There's another candidate that can do that. But I can tell you that I've had people working hard for weeks and for months ... You know the other night in Charlottesville, I had four former mayors and a vice mayor all making calls."

In the end, those kinds of calls may come in a lot more handy than big-name endorsements from out of state. Voter turnout, according to the Virginia secretary of state's office, is looking to be low given the rate of absentee-ballot returns thus far. The last time Virginia even bothered to hold a Democratic primary for the governor's mansion was 1977, and 500,000 people showed up. The state's population has doubled since then, so no one is expecting turnout that low. But when victory could mean an extra 20,000 votes, McAuliffe's and Moran's much larger GOTV machines could prove decisive — especially if they can turn out black voters who accounted for more than 30% of the vote in the 2008 presidential primary. McAuliffe in particular has made a push for black voters, focusing on issues like cracking down on predatory payday lending and aggressively pursuing endorsements from the state's civil rights leaders. While Deeds appears to have the momentum, Sabato says, the race is far too close to call. (See 10 things that never happened in a campaign before.)

Whomever comes out on top will face an uphill battle. McDonnell, who had no primary fight to contend with, has a $4.9 million war chest and is already leading all three Democratic candidates in polls. As Republicans try to regroup in the face of major losses in the last two cycles on all levels of government, it seems they are making their first stand here in Virginia. "Right now the stars seemed aligned right for the Republicans. Since the Jimmy Carter era, when one party wins the White House the other party wins the Virginia governor's race the following year," says Mark Rozell, a political-science professor at George Mason University in Fairfax County, Va. "The GOP is united this year, the Democrats are battling it out in an expensive, divisive primary." Still, the most powerful Democrat in the race has yet to make an appearance: whomever the candidate will be, he will surely benefit from the presence of an enormously popular President just across the Potomac with a pre-built grass-roots network just waiting to be activated.

Read a TIME story on McAuliffe.

See pictures of polarizing politicians at LIFE.com.