He’s raised record amounts of money, spent more than double his opponents at $53,000 a day, fielded an army of 5,500 volunteers and drawn the eyes of the nation when a former U.S. president campaigned with him.
But Tuesday - a week before the Virginia Democratic primary for governor - a poll showed that Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, was in a dead heat in a survey he led solidly just two weeks ago.
The poll released by Public Policy Polling, a nonpartisan firm based in Raleigh, N.C., showed Mr. McAuliffe neck and neck with state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, and that his support has slipped in the two weeks since the last poll numbers were released.
The McAuliffe campaign says the numbers confirm what they already knew: The race is going to be tight.
“Since we have been in this thing, we’ve been out seven days a week, 18 to 20 hours a day. We’ve been everywhere. Some people have been surprised with the depth,” Mr. McAuliffe said.
The race could hinge on voter turnout, but money has dominated discussions of the campaign. Mr. McAuliffe made headlines with the cash he raised from across the country. Famous friends, including Donald Trump, wrote him checks.
In the last two-month reporting period ending May 27, Mr. McAuliffe raised $1.8 million to make his total haul this campaign $6.9 million. Mr. Deeds raised more than $676,000, and former Delegate Brian J. Moran raised about $844,000.
Mr. McAuliffe spent slightly more than $3 million in the past two months, while Mr. Deeds spent about $1.4 million and Mr. Moran spent almost $1 million.
When news broke that the legendary moneyman and talk show staple would be running for governor, “carpetbagger” was the word that bubbled from the lips of political watchers.
But in a race where only one of the four contenders - Mr. Deeds - was born in Virginia, many observers were unaware that Mr. McAuliffe had called Northern Virginia home for 17 years.
He and his wife, Dorothy, moved to McLean when their eldest daughter was a baby. She turns 18 on Friday - just in time to vote in the primary, Mrs. McAuliffe said.
She described Mr. McAuliffe as a family man, someone who attends the children’s sporting events and exhaustively documents their lives. On birthdays, he brings out videos from the fireproof filing cabinet where he keeps dozens of photo albums and DVDs that he’s created.
He never stops, Mrs. McAuliffe said. When he sits down at his desk, he doesn’t get up until it is cleared of all papers. “He’s happiest when he’s working hard,” she said. “He’s just optimistic energy.”
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly of Fairfax County said Mr. McAuliffe did his due diligence on the campaign trail.
“He is the quintessential salesman - and I mean that positively,” said Mr. Connolly, who is not endorsing any candidate for governor. “He is selling his connections, his ability to bring jobs, his ability to build businesses … to help revive hard-pressed parts of the state. That is his narrative and that is what he is selling, and the question is: Does that resonate with voters?”
In the oft-told story, Mr. McAuliffe started a paving company at age 14 in his native Syracuse, N.Y. He expanded from neighborhood driveways to larger businesses and his fortune kept growing. He has publicly said he made enough money by age 30 to never work another day in his life.
When asked to disclose his net worth, Mr. McAuliffe declined, citing a variety of reasons including the safety of his children. He said he hasn’t taken a paycheck from the Democrats for years and he pledged that if elected governor, he would not take a salary.
“It is a hard thing for me to be taking a salary when parts of Virginia have 20.8 percent unemployment,” he told The Washington Times on Tuesday. “And if I am willing to come in and donate my time, it makes a better argument to get people to come in and donate their time.”
He has always been a man with ideas, said his friend since kindergarten, Duke Kinney. Mr. Kinney recalled a time during their sophomore year right around Halloween, when the football team was playing its archrival.
The class needed money, and Mr. McAuliffe was class president. “He was always our class president,” Mr. Kinney said. “He just always had a vision.”
Mr. McAuliffe came up with the idea during a trip to the grocery store of making and selling candied apples. The two young men bought 500 apples, and Mr. McAuliffe persuaded the school to let them use its kitchen to make the treats.
“I can probably swear to this day, no one had ever sold a candy apple before that day, and I don’t think anybody has done it since. We had 500 candy apples for 50 cents apiece. If we had 1,000, we would have sold 1,000. It was a simple idea,” Mr. Kinney said.
His fundraising efforts for the Democrats followed that simple, no-holds-barred mandate. He once wrestled an alligator in exchange for a $15,000 donation.
Those methods helped commandeer hundreds of millions of dollars for the Democratic Party and the Clintons. Mr. McAuliffe most recently served as chairman of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign and before that raised money for Bill Clinton’s campaigns in the United States and the former president’s charitable efforts abroad. His efforts put Democrats on an even footing with Republicans in the chase for political dollars.
Loyalty to people and party is important to Mr. McAuliffe.
When the Clintons couldn’t get a loan for their house in Chappaqua, N.Y., Mr. McAuliffe guaranteed the $1.3 million loan. Mr. Kinney said that his childhood friend has remained loyal to the place where he grew up. Mr. McAuliffe has given money to his school and quietly helped old school friends where needed.
To some in Virginia, he is best known for his appearances on television attacking Republican leadership and defending Democrats and Mrs. Clinton.
To offset charges that he’s a Virginia dilettante, Mr. McAuliffe has released a comprehensive plan for the state.
On the campaign trail, he is the successful businessman with years of experience. Gone are the Hawaiian shirts of recent television appearances, replaced by the conservative look of a contender.
During a recent appearance in Northern Virginia, Mr. McAuliffe hugged his way through a crowd, greeting supporters and old friends from the Clinton administration.
He talks about job creation. He wants to create incentives so companies will bring green jobs to the state. He wants to improve transportation by building high-speed rail. He talks about improving access to education. But, with the state economy foundering, his main focus is bringing jobs to the state.
“At the end of four years, if I’m called job creator and chief, than I have been successful as governor,” he said.
On other issues key to Virginia voters: Mr. McAuliffe has said he opposes the gay marriage amendment but that it is unrealistic to think the state would repeal it. He would allow offshore drilling under stringent circumstances and is open to coal-burning power plants. He says he’s obsessed with converting chicken waste into energy.
He also loves to talk about shutting down all payday lenders. He said that he hasn’t taken campaign donations from payday lenders or any company that accepted Troubled Asset Relief Program funds. He said he also hasn’t accepted money from Dominion Virginia Power because the company opposes a mandated renewable energy standard.
However, current and former executives have contributed to his campaign.
But with the campaign days winding down and race likely to be tight through the primary, Mr. McAuliffe is turning his attention to getting out the vote.
“Today, thousands and thousands of people will be called … many doors will be knocked on today all over Virginia, and this has been done for months,” Mr. McAuliffe said.
“We have ID’d voters. We have been talking to them consistently for months. We’ve been getting them information,” he said. “On Election Day, we are going to call them. We’re going to knock on their door and get them to vote.”