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Terry McAuliffe poised to let Virginia Democratic Party sling mud for him

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Democrat Terry McAuliffe, struggling to create a positive image for himself in Virginia's governor race, is setting the stage to shift the dirty work of negative advertising this fall to others.

Mr. McAuliffe, a prolific former Clinton fundraiser who is far outpacing his Republican rival, has shifted millions of his campaign dollars to the Virginia Democratic Party, where it can be spent on attack ads against Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II and get-out-the-vote efforts.

The tactic allows him to keep his own advertising and message positive, polishing an image that still suffers with voters in a race in which both candidates with high negatives are vying to be the least unpopular.

"Basically, he's using the DPVA to do all the negative campaigning," said Bob Holsworth, a former professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and longtime analyst of state politics. The party "is a whole subsidy of the McAuliffe campaign."

A spokesman for Mr. McAuliffe's campaign said the money goes to a wide variety of expenses, including advertising and voter turnout programs, but he did not comment on that specific charge.

Because Virginia governors are limited to single, nonconsecutive four-year terms, it's typical for candidates to play active roles in remaking the state party structure when they launch their bids. But the donations from candidates to their state parties typically have been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, as opposed to Mr. McAuliffe's $3.3 million. Democrat Mark R. Warner, a self-made millionaire like Mr. McAuliffe, contributed the second most amount of money to the party during a governor's race since 1997. Slightly more than $2.2 million of the $20 million the former governor and current U.S. senator spent in his successful 2001 race was donated to the state party.

Mr. Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general, has donated almost $150,000 to the Republican Party of Virginia through the first half of this year.

The Democrat had raked in $11.1 million this year and had $6 million on hand through June 30, compared with Mr. Cuccinelli's haul of $5.7 million and $2.7 million on hand over the same time period.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said the phenomenon is certainly nothing new. He pointed out that political campaigns often deploy other entities to undertake particularly nasty attacks, whether they are state parties or political action committees. Recent negative attack ads on Mr. McAuliffe, for example, have been funded by the Republican Governors Association, which has put $4.6 million into the race.

Mr. McAuliffe has supported state Democrats in other ways, giving $200,000 to the committee for the House of Delegates' Democratic Caucus, among other smaller contributions.

Still, Mr. Farnsworth in this case surmised "a strong desire to increase the volume of campaign attack ads without having McAuliffe's name on the ads."

"What might be different in this case is the volume of money, because McAuliffe is a fundraiser extraordinaire," he said.

Indeed, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and rainmaker for Bill Clinton was once dubbed the "greatest fundraiser in the history of the universe" by Clinton Vice President Al Gore.

Whether voters will make the distinction in a campaign already infamous for toxic barrages from both sides is an open question.

"I think this is a distinction that tends to be without a difference," Mr. Holsworth said. "[The] reality is that the vast majority of the public sees the campaign as one whole person and [they] don't distinguish these subtleties. And they're probably correct in doing so."

A spokesman for the state party acknowledged a request for comment, but did not provide one by late Thursday evening.

If the party continues to buy ads with Mr. McAuliffe's money, it might soon be paying higher rates than the candidate could get himself.

In general, the candidates' campaign committees get lower broadcast advertising rates than political organizations like the state party. Committees essentially are given the same ad rates as advertisers who buy large amounts of airtime, such as local car dealers, even if they don't buy in volume, said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project and government and public policy at Washington State University.

But, he added, those rates kick in only 45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.

The McAuliffe campaign has aired some ads critical of Mr. Cuccinelli on its own dime. The most recent television ad focuses on the involvement of the attorney general's office in a dispute in Southwest Virginia between landowners and a natural gas company that has contributed to Mr. Cuccinelli's campaign.

Both major parties in the state send a barrage of email every day with attack messages. The Republican Party of Virginia also, for example, launched a robocall campaign against Mr. McAuliffe last month after the Obama administration announced it was delaying a key part of the president's health care overhaul.

But state Democrats have been aggressive in terms of television buys — not cheap, especially in the D.C. market that covers the voter-rich Northern Virginia suburbs. Such ads have highlighted Mr. Cuccinelli's opposition to reauthorizing a recent iteration of the federal Violence Against Women Act as well as his stance on social issues such as abortion.

Analysts say the ads might serve only to reinforce the stereotypes the candidates have created of each other.

"Will this campaign be the far-right conservative or the sleazy money guy?" Mr. Farnsworth joked.

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