LEESBURG, Va. -– Hours after Republican Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling announced that he will not run for governor as an independent, the Democratic candidate who may have benefitted from a Bolling candidacy began to sharpen attacks on his Republican opponent.
Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and longtime fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton, toured a handful of businesses in the downtown of this Washington suburb on Tuesday, asking questions about the impact of federal budget sequestration on the town's economy.
In an interview, McAuliffe laid out the case he will make against Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli now that the still embryonic governor's race has entered a new phase with Bolling's exit. McAuliffe, 56, is in his second run at the Virginia governor's mansion, having lost the 2009 primary to Creigh Deeds, and he is selling himself as a pro-business Democrat.
McAuliffe, echoing the concerns of some business leaders, said Cuccinelli's social conservatism will be an obstacle for business development in the state.
Virginians, McAuliffe said, "don't want their governor focused on a social, ideological agenda and divisive issues, which divides folks. As someone's been in business for a long time, it is hard to grow, to create business activities if you're putting walls up around Virginia, and you're putting up a 'not wanted' sign.
"Any time, any second we spend on socially divisive issues is time we're not spending time on job growth, transportation issues, health care issues, the things that Virginia families want their elected officials to focus on," McAuliff said.
Cuccinelli's campaign rejected the notion that it is solely or even primarily about social or cultural issues.
“As Ken Cuccinelli has said numerous times on the campaign trail, his top priority is to not only make Virginia the number one place to do business, but make it so business-friendly that companies find it foolish to leave the Commonwealth," said Cuccinelli spokeswoman Anna Nix.
The 44-year old Cuccinelli is likely to settle into his own line of attack on McAuliffe that tracks closely with the critique leveled by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online website that on Monday called the Democrat "the cronyism candidate."
McAuliffe, Republicans will argue, has relied largely on political connections to succeed in investment banking and in business, and chose to build manufacturing plants for his electrical auto company in Mississippi rather than in Virginia.
For McAuliffe, trying to argue that an opponent's positions on social values are bad for business may seem like a stretch, but that concern was voiced by a handful of business leaders in Northern Virginia, who confronted Cuccinelli at a closed-door meeting with a few hundred GOP donors in Washington last month.
Time, and whether McAuliff sticks with this message, will tell whether it works. What is sure to remain during this campaign is McAuliffe's trademark hyperbole.
"It doesn't matter to me your political party persuasion. If you're willing to work with me on job creation and big economic development issues, I'll work with you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," McAuliff pledged to this reporter in an empty conference room of a business incubator. "I promise you I won't sleep if there's someone willing to sit around and work with me on these types of issues."
Bolling's decision not to run would have been viewed, a month or two ago, as positive for Cuccinelli, said one Republican operative in the state who could speak only on the condition he not be identified. But the conventional wisdom, this operative said, had shifted as Bolling tacked away from the right toward the center, raising questions about whether he might have in fact picked off moderate independents in voter-rich Northern Virginia, leaving Cuccinelli a path to victory.
"Fans of politics are deprived of an interesting x-factor in the Old Dominion’s gubernatorial race. What remains is a contest between two deeply flawed candidates, Cuccinelli and McAuliffe, whose race will be vicious in no small part because they have limited positive appeal," wrote Larry Sabato, director of of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
The race, Sabato wrote, "remains a toss-up at the moment."
McAuliffe dodged when asked whether Bolling's decision would help him.
"I'm disappointed, I will tell you, that there's no room for someone like Bill Bolling in the Republican Party," McAuliffe said. "My heart goes out to him. I just feel bad that something he's always wanted to do, that there was no room in his party for him."
During his tour of the downtown, McAuliffe asked at each stop about the impact of federal sequestration. None of the handful of people he talked to on Tuesday voiced much concern.
"You know with wine I think instead of a $50 bottle that a $5 bottle might go. But I don't think they're going to stop drinking," said Mike Caroll, owner of the Leesburg vintner wine shop.
McAuliffe ran into one person who said sequestration has been good for business.
"So here's the really weird answer. It's actually helped me," said Dennis Boykin, with DB4 Consulting. "But I'm rare."
Boykin, who helps contractors find contracts with the federal government, said that his clients are "now willing to spend more money trying to find new contracts … so I've seen an uptick in my business."
"My clients are, frankly, very nervous and what they're doing is they're -– other than trying to find new business and spending new money on guys like me -– they're really kinda sorta pulling back. They're not spending a lot of money on other things," Boykin said. "We haven't seen the real impact of sequestration yet, and I'm not really convinced that they're going to be nearly as bad as everyone thinks they are."
McAuliffe, however, said later that in his travels around the state, he has "run into so many folks in the last couple months who literally have already received notice and have cut, you know, hundreds of jobs in certain businesses."
A McAuliffe spokesman sent along a news article to back up McAuliffe's claim, citing a January letter from the Navy's top officer, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, that said sequestration would force the Navy to lay off more than 3,000 temporary employees around the country. Norfolk Naval Station and Norfolk Naval Shipyard in southeast Virginia are two of the Navy's top shipyards and employ thousands of civilian employees.