Obama, Clinton play silent role in Virginia’s gubernatorial race

The Democratic primary for the Virginia gubernatorial nomination is being haunted by one of the most contentious primary battles in history — the 2008 fight between Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez's engagement win Obama's endorsement Pence lobbies anti-Trump donors to support reelection: report The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump attacks on McCain rattle GOP senators MORE and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

For former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe (D), former state Rep. Brian Moran (D) and state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D), the race to replace outgoing Gov. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDem senator wants Trump to extend immigration protections to Venezuelans Pentagon sends Congress list of projects that could lose funds to Trump's emergency declaration The Hill's Morning Report - 2020 Dems grapple with race, gender and privilege MORE (D) offers the opportunity to associate themselves with the presidential candidates of their choice, as well as the chance to borrow a page from either candidate’s playbook.

The winner of the June 9 primary will move on to face Bob McDonnell (R), who was the state’s attorney general until he resigned earlier this year to focus on the governor’s race.

Moran, brother of Rep. Jim MoranJames (Jim) Patrick MoranLawmakers contemplate a tough political sell: Raising their pay Joe Lieberman says Northam shouldn't resign: Rush to judgment 'is unfair' Former Virginia congressman says Northam shouldn't resign: 'Redemption is a very powerful factor' MORE (D-Va.), has been the most visible in his efforts to associate himself with Obama, whom he endorsed during the presidential primaries. Moran released a radio spot lauding Obama’s first 100 days in office and his campaign makes a point to tout the number of Obama delegates and grassroots volunteers who back him.

“Brian Moran would never claim to inherit Obama’s mantle, but there are similarities in terms of their commitment to public service,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Moran spokesman.

McAuliffe, meanwhile, would seem to have a harder time associating himself with the first Democrat to win the commonwealth’s electoral votes since 1964. McAuliffe was chairman of Clinton’s campaign, and though he held 30 events for Obama in Virginia, Moran has attacked him for being associated with the infamous advertisement in which Clinton questioned Obama’s ability to handle a 3 a.m. phone call.

Plus McAuliffe has taken advantage of his close relationship with former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe wisdom of Trump's lawyers, and the accountability that must follow Mueller's report JOBS for Success Act would recognize that all people have potential Howard Schultz is holding the Democratic Party hostage MORE and much of his team. The ex-president has campaigned several times with McAuliffe in Virginia — he will make another two-day swing through the state on May 13 and 14 — and old allies like James Carville have signed solicitations for McAuliffe’s e-mail list.

“As a former governor and a good friend of Terry’s, we think [Clinton] can speak to Terry’s experience creating jobs,” said Elisabeth Smith, McAuliffe’s spokeswoman. And far from choosing the Clintons over Obama, she added, “No one in this race fought harder than Terry did to get Barack Obama elected.”

“Moran would like to frame [the race] as a choice between Clinton’s guy and Obama’s guy,” said Bob Holsworth, a political scientist formerly with Virginia Commonwealth University who now runs the Virginia Tomorrow blog. But, he said, “McAuliffe has Clinton. It’s not certain at all that Moran has Obama. That’s the challenge of the Moran campaign: He’s trying to mimic the Obama campaign.”

Neither Obama nor Clinton will be endorsing a candidate or campaigning for anyone in the primary.

Ironically, while Moran pursues the Obama mantle of outsider bent on change, observers say McAuliffe’s campaign depends more on recreating what Obama was able to do, while Moran would benefit from a more Clinton-esque strategy.

“While McAuliffe is clearly tied to Clinton and the elected officials Moran is tied to are Obama supporters, the two campaigns are actually using each other’s playbook,” said Michael McDonald, a George Mason University political scientist.

Moran “is relying a lot on endorsements from local officials,” Holsworth said. Like Clinton, Moran would benefit from a low-turnout primary heavy on party loyalists who would rather support a lifelong Virginian than someone who might be painted as a carpetbagger.

“They hope it’s a kind of the friends-and-neighbors primary,” Holsworth said of Moran’s campaign.

But McAuliffe is using his massive war chest to hire more staff bent on driving up turnout, a strategy that Obama used successfully in the Iowa caucuses and other contests.

“If McAuliffe is able to expand the electorate using Obama’s playbook, he may be able to draw in people who aren’t as tied to the local party machine, like Obama did,” McDonald said.

Caught in the middle of the two seeming front-runners, Deeds has the opportunity to exploit an overlooked portion of the Democratic electorate, and to either walk away with the surprising win or play the role of king-making spoiler.

Deeds sat out the 2008 presidential primary. And as the clear underdog in the race, that could serve him well. McAuliffe and Moran have engaged each other a few times — most notably with Moran going after McAuliffe in recent debates — but Deeds has tried to stay above the fray.

Both front-runners are campaigning throughout the state, but they are competing especially hard in Northern Virginia, where a large percentage of the Democratic electorate is based. Deeds’s base, on the other hand, is in more rural areas of Virginia along the Appalachian Mountains.

Deeds has refrained from attacking his opponents, and he has not engaged in some of the typical stops Virginia politicians make. Most notably, his two opponents put on shows of force at the Shad Planking, a major political get-together held in late April, but Deeds opted to spend the day campaigning.

“There’s a little skepticism about Creigh Deeds’s ability to win in a general election,” McDonald said. But, he added: “He’s going to hope that [McAuliffe and Moran] destroy each other and he’ll be viewed as the acceptable alternative.”