Sunday, April 12, 2009

Brian J. Moran has collected less money, fielded fewer staffers and kept a lower profile than his best-known opponent in the race for the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor.

But the one-time party power broker in the Virginia General Assembly has stayed competitive in the race by reinventing himself as a grass-roots candidate and stocking up on local endorsements.

“I’ve been traveling the state for years in all areas of the commonwealth, establishing tremendous support. Virginia needs a governor who cares to reach across the aisle and meet consensus on challenging issues,” said Mr. Moran, a former state delegate who faces state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe for the nomination in June.

Local support is crucial to Mr. Moran’s bid. His principal rival for the nomination, Mr. McAuliffe, has tapped into the vast nationwide network of political donors he has organized in decades spent raising tens of millions of dollars for the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. McAuliffe reported last week that he had raised $4.2 million in the first three months of the year. Mr. Moran raised $800,000. Both campaigns volunteered the totals, announcing them in advance of the next release of campaign-finance information on Wednesday.

The most recent survey, conducted March 27 to 29 by Public Policy Polling, shows the race to be closely contested.

Mr. Moran leads with 22 percent support, Mr. McAuliffe is second with 18 percent and Mr. Deeds is third with 15 percent. The poll of 740 likely Democratic primary voters has a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.

“Brian Moran has taken the lead this month after Terry McAuliffe had it last month,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. “But all the movement is within the margin of error, and this remains a very close three-way race.”

The poll also showed that 45 percent of Virginia voters surveyed were still undecided about the race.

Another poll conducted last week for the liberal Web site Daily Kos showed Mr. Moran with 24 percent support, Mr. McAuliffe with 19 percent and Mr. Deeds with 16 percent. The poll’s margin of error was 4 percent.

Political observers say that Mr. Moran’s best chance to win is to focus his financial resources on the final weeks before the June 9 primary.

“There’s no way he can compete on a daily basis,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Most of what happens that will matter will occur between the end of May and June 9.”

The Moran camp said it is confident the race will be won by a grass-roots effort, community by community.

“The way he wins this truly is from the bottom up, not the top down,” said Moran spokesman Jesse Ferguson.

George Mason University public policy professor Mark J. Rozell said a ground campaign will help Mr. Moran compensate for his limited funds.

“In a relatively low-turnout primary race, this strategy is going to be important,” he said.

Mr. Sabato said high voter turnout is unlikely because of tepid public interest in political races and historically poor turnout in contested gubernatorial primaries in Virginia.

“I’ve literally had people say about the gubernatorial candidates, ‘Just go away.’ People are tired of politics,” he said.

Mr. Moran will need to make up for his deficit in resources by giving voters a reason not to vote for the nationally known and deep-pocketed Mr. McAuliffe, Mr. Sabato said.

“And yes, that means negative campaigning with all its risks,” he said.

The most recent Public Policy Polling survey showed that 29 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Mr. McAuliffe, compared with 32 percent who viewed him favorably and 39 percent who were “not sure.”

Mr. Moran had a 15 percent unfavorable rating, compared with a 34 percent favorability rating and 51 percent who were not sure.

In an attempt to capitalize on Mr. McAuliffe’s reputation as an effective fundraiser, his opponents have tried to portray him as an outsider to Virginia politics. Though he has lived in McLean for 17 years, he had little involvement in state politics before announcing his bid for governor and his in-state credentials are thin, Mr. Sabato said.

“Nobody even knew he was from Virginia until he started running,” he said.

By contrast, Mr. Moran represented Alexandria in the House of Delegates from 1996 until he resigned in December to focus on the gubernatorial race, and he served as the leader of the House Democratic caucus since 2001.

Mr. McAuliffe’s national status has not affected Mr. Moran directly, Mr. Ferguson said.

“There is more national interest with McAuliffe, but the campaign is the one that Brian wanted to run,” he said.

“We are clearly going to be outraised in this campaign, but we are on target to hit what we need to build grass-roots components and be able to win,” Mr. Ferguson said.

Mr. Moran, the brother of longtime Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, said that money is important, but the race also needs a strong candidate with leadership and bipartisan accomplishments.

“My resources are successful Democratic Party leadership, legislative accomplishments and a vision for the future that will continue to lead Virginia forward,” Mr. Moran said.

Mr. Moran said he would support efforts to reform Virginia’s campaign-finance laws, which do not limit contributions.

“Right now,” he said, “it is based on disclosure. Voters will know who is supporting which candidates.”

In December, Mr. Moran took a jab at Mr. McAuliffe and his out-of-state fundraising network by calling on other candidates to pledge to raise money only in Virginia. Asked whether he thinks Virginia laws allow outsiders to contribute to statewide elections, Mr. Moran said he would “let the voters decide.”

“But last year when I called upon opponents to limit contributions to Virginia races, [the other candidates] chose not to agree. I believe it is an important indicator of support when [campaign contributions] come from within the state,” he said.

In late March, Mr. Moran traveled to Richmond for a fundraiser, attended a dinner in Charlottesville and visited three churches and made several other appearances in Lynchburg and Danville.

Endorsements have come from the mayors of Richmond, Newport News, Norfolk, Hampton and Petersburg, among others, as well as the majority of elected Democrats on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the chairman of the Arlington County Board of Supervisors.

“It seems to me that what Moran has to do is ensure that the people that endorse him actually work for him, that the endorsements aren’t simply names on letterhead - that they become people who are working to bring out grass-roots people to vote,” said Bob Holsworth, a political analyst who runs the Web site

Mr. Moran has used his energy plan to try to set himself apart from his rivals. He is the only candidate to oppose offshore drilling and a proposed coal plant near the Chesapeake Bay.

He favors offshore wind and solar power, “smart grid” technology to increase efficiency, the creation of a Center for Innovative Green Technology to coordinate statewide investments and planning, and a requirement that 25 percent of Virginia’s energy come from renewable sources. That is double the state’s current voluntary goal.

Mr. Moran’s health care plan promises coverage for every Virginia child.

But it remains to be seen whether Mr. Moran will have the resources to stay competitive and deliver his message to Virginia voters.

“I think that’s making lemonade out of lemons, and politicians are very good at that,” Mr. Sabato said.

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