McAuliffe emerges as leading candidate in Virginia primary

ANNANDALE, Va. — The pecking order is taking shape in Virginia’s Democratic primary for governor, and things are starting to get messy for the party.

Former Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Terry McAuliffe is now playing the role of front-runner, with a pair of state lawmakers trying to knock him down.

A few polls have shown McAuliffe with a lead in the contest, but media outlets and experts have questioned the veracity of those polls, given that they were automated and measured a select group of voters.

If there was any doubt as to who resides at the top, though, Tuesday’s final debate before the June 9 contest probably put it to rest. Former state Del. Brian Moran and state Sen. Creigh Deeds both went hard after the outsider candidate with big-time national connections.

The task for Democrats now is to avoid the kind of divisive primary that could damage their prospects in the November general election, when the national political scene will be looking at it as one of two gubernatorial races testing the nation’s temperature on the new Democratic rule.

Moran dished out most of the McAuliffe bashing Tuesday. He went after the former DNC chairman for not creating jobs in Virginia and for his lack of governing experience.

In recent days, the former state delegate has gone after McAuliffe for being an early supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, as well as the “3 a.m.” ad that questioned President Obama’s ability to lead. But Moran unleashed the sharpest barb of the day when he hit McAuliffe’s ability to work with a state legislature.

“I don’t have time to teach you legislative process, nor do Virginians have time for you to learn it,” Moran said.

Moran appears to be in the best position to upend McAuliffe, and he hit the businessman repeatedly on issues including jobs and campaign promises. Moran appears to be tacking left, including opposing offshore drilling, in the hope of nabbing true-blue Democrats.

But he wasn’t the only one going after McAuliffe. By the end of the debate, even the understated Deeds unleashed a pointed attack on McAuliffe.

In his closing statement, Deeds emphasized that Democrats need to nominate the best candidate to face state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who is unopposed for the Republican nomination and has shown modest leads over each of the three Democrats in recent polling.

“I just don’t believe that working Virginians are prepared to have a nominee who made millions from credit card deals, who stands for Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls for Republicans to be 'united' on abortion Tlaib calls on Amash to join impeachment resolution Facebook temporarily suspended conservative commentator Candace Owens MORE and Wall Street executives, who gets more than 80 percent of his campaign contributions from out of state,” Deeds said in a series of clear shots at the man to his left, McAuliffe.

Ever the confident and carefree politico, McAuliffe laughed it off and steered his way through a non-confrontational performance, repeatedly apologizing for talking too much by saying, “I get excited.”

Moran has attacked McAuliffe for accepting money from a former executive at Dominion, the state’s power company, after pledging not to take the company’s money.

In response, McAuliffe emphasized that the executive is retired and made a semantic crack about the “check” he was accused of accepting.

“In fairness, he didn’t write a check,” McAuliffe said, laughing heartily.

McAuliffe’s response, while jovial, represents a reason some fear the contest could become increasingly confrontational.

While Moran and Deeds have been putting in their dues in the state for decades and have long eyed the 2009 contest, McAuliffe came into the race relatively late as a wealthy and well-connected outsider. Whether or not he is the front-runner, it’s clear he has gained traction.

McAuliffe repeatedly urged his opponents to clean up their act, calling it the “politics of division,” but Moran reinforced his decision to go after McAuliffe and didn’t back down after the debate. Moran’s campaign is calling it a comparison of their records.

“This isn’t the politics of division; this is the politics of record,” Moran said.

If the race does slip further into the gutter, though, the good news for Democrats is that they will have five months to refocus on the general election. There is also little evidence that much of the state is even paying attention to what’s happened in the race thus far.

Jennifer Duffy, a governor’s-race analyst at The Cook Political Report, noted that the Democratic primary electorate in Virginia is not accustomed to competitive statewide primaries.

Duffy noted that turnout for a competitive U.S. Senate primary in 2006 was only slightly more than 150,000.

“You’re looking at fairly low turnout dominated by activist types, which to me means it’s anybody’s game,” Duffy said.