Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday added coal to the issues on which he has assumed a firmly liberal position, staking his narrow lead in the governor's race on the hope that Virginia's moderate electorate is ready to select a Democratic candidate who also supports gay marriage, gun control and abortion rights.
Mr. McAuliffe for the first time voiced support for stricter carbon emissions regulations proposed by the Obama administration, taking a position that shores up his left flank on the issue but risks alienating blocs of voters in a state that has toggled between blue and red in recent years.
Pressed during a tour of a Northern Virginia company on whether he supports the guidelines as written, the Virginia gubernatorial candidate said, "I do, you bet," according to The Washington Post. "What I've looked at, I support what we need to do to obviously protect our air and water."
The Environmental Protection Agency last month announced the long-anticipated emissions rules that those in the industry say make new coal plants impossible. The rules would require new coal-fired power plants to install expensive technology to capture carbon dioxide. No U.S. plant has done that, largely because of the cost. Opponents say that makes the rule ripe for challenges.
During his failed 2009 campaign for governor, Mr. McAuliffe said he never wanted to see another coal plant built in Virginia, and his Republican opponent, Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, has hammered him and President Obama for waging a "war on coal" — an industry vital to the southwestern part of the state.
Mr. Cuccinelli seized on the admission, issuing a statement saying he is the "only candidate in this race who has consistently fought for Virginia jobs and responsible energy policy."
"It's unfortunate that my opponent has been unwilling to fight for either," he said. "If Terry is Governor, you can count on him to roll over to the federal government."
Mr. McAuliffe's campaign responded by saying that, unlike Mr. Cuccinelli, the Democrat is willing to support energy technologies that will allow the state's economy to diversify while protecting jobs.
"Terry believes that limits on carbon pollution at new power plants should be implemented in an effective manner to encourage innovation and protect clean air," spokesman Josh Schwerin said in an email.
In attempts to paint Mr. Cuccinelli as outside of Virginia's "mainstream" on issues such as abortion and gun rights, Mr. McAuliffe at other times has taken positions that are to the left of some Democrats — and unapologetically so, in the case of gun control.
During a debate last week, he affirmed his support for the Second Amendment while reaffirming his backing of a ban on military-style, semi-automatic weapons and background checks on gun purchases.
"Now whatever rating I may get from the NRA, I'm going to stand here and tell you today that, as governor, I want to make sure that every one of our citizens in the commonwealth of Virginia are safe," he said.
The National Rifle Association has awarded Mr. Cuccinelli an A and Mr. McAuliffe and F.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, cautioned not to read too much into the posturing of Mr. McAuliffe, who holds a slight lead in the race, according to most recent polling. He said that generally speaking, politicians essentially will do whatever it takes to get across the finish line.
"They take the positions and they do what they have to do to win — period," he said.
Past Democratic gubernatorial candidates in the state have adjusted their messages for a statewide audience.
L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor, downplayed the issue of abortion during his historic 1989 campaign. Democrat Mark R. Warner played up his support for gun rights to perform well in even traditionally Republican strongholds in the state in 2001.
State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds' lost leverage from his position on gun rights, after his opposition to Virginia's since-repealed one-gun-a-month rule cost him Mr. Wilder's endorsement in the 2009 race he lost to Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican.
In recent years, the commonwealth has shifted its favor between the political parties. President Obama became the first Democrat to carry Virginia in consecutive elections since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and both of the state's U.S. senators are Democrats. But Republicans control the levers of power in Richmond and hold an 8-3 advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Paul Goldman, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state, was among the earliest to predict a sweep for his party this year in the races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. He said it was still an open question whether such an outcome would be specific to this year or whether it would be emblematic of a broader political trend.
"Obviously, this year's different," he said. "You don't know whether it's just the politics of this year or ... that there is now a shift where you have to recalculate your strategy on both sides."
Mr. Sabato said the political winds have changed since Mr. Obama has been elected twice in a row. But he noted that solidly conservative positions from Mr. Cuccinelli have made it easier for Mr. McAuliffe to try to shore up the Democratic base, positing that the middle of the electorate shrinks in low-turnout, off-year elections.
"It's a product of this particular race and these particular candidates," he said.
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