"He has changed the entire dynamic of the race," said Robert D. Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "It's not absolutely clear what the outcome will be here. McAuliffe has the kind of political and media savvy that comes from being on the national stage for a long time. He has, obviously, prodigious fundraising skills. But we don't know how a national figure will play in a race for governor. That is the one real uncertainty."
Despite that, McAuliffe's two-month "listening tour" on his way to last Wednesday's formal announcement has sent shudders through state politics. First is his money: He has the ability and contacts to raise tens of millions of dollars for a statewide campaign. And next is the sheer size of his personality, which causes him to careen in conversation from bringing broadband to rural areas to burning chicken poop for fuel to using his friendships with major CEOs (whom he gladly lists) to make it all happen.
"I loooove education!" McAuliffe bellowed at a recent Fairfax County Democratic Committee breakfast, speaking to a local activist about public schools -- and lowering his face into the voice recorder of a nearby reporter to be sure the words were captured. As a small crowd of curious Democrats gathered, the two men McAuliffe faces in the Democratic primary, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds of rural Bath County and former state delegate Brian J. Moran of Alexandria, watched from across the room.
To varying degrees, McAuliffe's competitors are running their races by the old set of rules, which have worked for generations. Deeds, a Plato-quoting state senator from a tiny Blue Ridge community on the West Virginia border, is a conservative Democrat, former prosecutor and friend of the National Rifle Association whose strongest appeal might be in rural Virginia. But Deeds has proven himself in a statewide campaign, coming within 400 votes of winning the attorney general's race in 2005.
Moran, a 13-year state delegate, former prosecutor and the brother of U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D), also has locked up support from dozens of state and local Democratic Party officials, including most elected leaders in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. The day before McAuliffe's statewide swing began, Moran staged an event in Arlington, surrounded by local leaders of what he called the "bluest of counties," to remind the public of the strength of his support among local Democratic officials.