RICHMOND, Va. — Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor in the bellwether state of Virginia, is a consummate creature of politics.
Toward the end of his visit Friday to Indoor Biotechnologies Inc., an allergen research laboratory, he chatted up a young researcher — a woman from New Jersey who had graduated from college in northern Virginia this year before taking the job in the lab.
After learning that she hadn't registered to vote, McAuliffe — who sported a lapel pin with the U.S. and Virginia flags — pulled his driver aside and asked him to get a voter registration form for the woman before departing, no doubt hoping that he would succeed in adding to his vote total by one.
A former Democratic National Committee chairman with close ties to both Bill and Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe is looking to establish himself as more than just a grip-and-grin campaigner in his run for governor against Virginia's archconservative attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli.
Once a fixture on cable news and the national media, McAuliffe has largely eschewed the spotlight during this run for governor (his second) in favor of well-crafted photo opportunities. He just concluded a tour of all of Virginia's 23 community colleges, and he visits small businesses like Indoor Biotechnologies — highlighting the types of jobs McAuliffe vows he'll lure to Virginia if elected.
Steve Helber / AP
Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Terry McAuliffe, gestures during a political science class at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013.
But just two months before Election Day, it's not clear that voters have grown particularly enamored of McAuliffe. In a campaign that's already become an ugly slugfest, McAuliffe's trump card might be that he's not Cuccinelli.
Madeleine Watkins, the co-founder of Indoor Biotechnologies, said she knew “very little” about McAuliffe before his visit to her Charlottesville, Va. business.
"I think it's more about why I don't support Ken Cuccinelli," said Watkins. "He wants to regulate things that shouldn't be regulated — reproductive health and climate change."
To that end, a Quinnipiac University poll found McAuliffe's favorability rating among Virginians at a middling 34-33 percent favorable/unfavorable in its August poll. But Cuccinelli does slightly worse; 41 percent of Virginians view the attorney general unfavorably, versus 35 percent who see him favorably.
McKenzie Carroll from Bumpass, Va., the student ambassador who led McAuliffe and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., on a tour of J. Sargent Reynolds Community College on Friday afternoon, said she didn't know too much about McAuliffe, either.
"He seems really nice, and it's awesome that he's here," said Carroll, an admitted Republican-leaning voter. "I'd probably be more likely to vote for him because I know him now."
In these smaller settings, McAuliffe is eager to greet everyone in the room, which he does with the ease of a man who's worked a few fundraising cocktail receptions. He met students in a classroom science laboratory and peered into microscopes featuring pond bacteria before declaring, "You'll never want to go swimming in a pond again!"
Surprisingly, through much of the day, one topic rarely did arise: McAuliffe's challenger, Cuccinelli.
McAuliffe was attentive throughout meetings with community college administrators and researchers at Indoor Biotechnologies. (He constantly scrawls notes into a reporter's-type notebook, the details of which he later gives to his policy director for development.)
Monday's gaggle talks about the never ending controversies dominating the Virginia gubernatorial race between former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe and Lt. Gov. Ken Cuccinelli.
"I'm personally very pleased that he's here. He seems interested, he's taking notes," said Peter Bartol, the CFO of the allergen research company. "When you're here, you get body language, look at his interests, listen to his questions. You get a much better feeling and a much better impression."
Only in front of the cameras did McAuliffe turn his focus to Cuccinelli, delivering a broadside against the attorney general that would surely end up on local television.
"People are paying attention and they're paying attention, obviously, because of the stark differences between the two candidates," McAuliffe told reporters after his event on Friday, adding: "My opponent has spent his career on a rigid social, ideological agenda."
There's still much that could sway the trajectory of this race, a key election that often offers a glimpse into the country’s mood one year after each presidential election. (Virginia, an increasingly competitive state, is famous for not electing governors of the same party currently running the White House.)
Lurking variables include the struggling environmental automaker GreenTech, which McAuliffe helped found with his political connections, and which located its manufacturing in Mississippi (not Virginia). The company has also come under scrutiny for not meeting gauzy projections about production and hiring, along with its efforts to secure visas for foreign investors.
McAuliffe's campaign has also prided itself on collecting positive coverage in local media with the candidate's tour of community colleges and small businesses, rather than big, boisterous rallies.
(McAuliffe said those rallies are coming in October. Asked whether voters could expect to see President Barack Obama, Bill Clinton — or even Hillary Clinton — on the campaign trail this fall, McAuliffe said, "Probably, yes.")
The Democrat's team has also put its chips on replicating the kind of data-driven turnout model the Obama team used in 2012 to help deliver votes that might not otherwise participate in off-year elections.
Cuccinelli also faces serious challenges in the home stretch of the campaign. Most polls suggest he trails McAuliffe slightly, and his campaign has been weighed down by outgoing Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's ethics woes. (It doesn't help that Cuccinelli took gifts from the same benefactor whose gifts to McDonnell are now the source of several investigations.)
And though Cuccinelli became a darling of GOP activists after years of pursuing a hard-charging conservative agenda, Republicans in Virginia haven't particularly rallied around him. Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling has poked Cuccinelli throughout the campaign, and McAuliffe has won some high-profile Republican endorsements.
It's not a particularly inspiring election. In the most negative casting, this election offers a choice of which candidate Virginians could better stomach. More charitably, McAuliffe vs. Cuccinelli is a test of whether a staunch conservative can still reliably win in the Old Dominion, or whether Virginia is now firmly a member of the small group of swing states.
But if the frenetic pace of the final few weeks is weighing on McAuliffe, he's not showing it. He says he's still learning.
"This is how you learn. You can't learn at a big rally or during a speech," McAuliffe said.
This story was originally published on Tue Sep 10, 2013 6:29 AM EDT