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It's no walk in the park

The regular weekday visitors at Frying Pan Park come for the tractor ride and a look at the goats and the pigs. Last week, immediately next to the pigsty, there was a bonus attraction: the former president of the United States and his buddy, who is running for governor of Virginia.

Most of the park's visitors chose the pigs. (A helpful sign assured all that you can't catch swine flu from visiting Porky.)

The farm park just east of Dulles International Airport in Herndon, Va., is a magnet for young mothers looking for a diversion for their preschoolers. The campaign visit by Bill Clinton and Terry McAuliffe was certainly the buzz of the afternoon, but most mothers weren't sticking around to see the politicians.

It wasn't that they dislike Clinton or McAuliffe; a post-presidential glow has settled upon the Man From Hope, and most Fairfax residents I spoke to had only the vaguest notion of who McAuliffe is. Rather, what most park visitors shared was a sense that they'd done their politics thing last year, and they were glad they had, but they're not remotely ready to dive back into that sea of division and controversy, thanks very much.

"I personally just burned out on the presidential race," said Sherri Pudner of Reston, who was at the park with her daughter's preschool group. "I don't really know anything about any of the candidates for governor."

"I had my fill of politics last year," said Karen Kelleher, who lives near the park and was helping out her mother, a preschool teacher. "It's a little silly and pointless to have a former president come in when it's just a governor running. Seems a little over the top."

But as dog-tired as many Virginians may be of campaigns, the fact remains that the Democratic primary will be June 9 and one of three candidates will be selected to run against Republican Bob McDonnell. Virginia rarely sees contested party primaries for statewide races, and when they happen, they draw notoriously low turnouts. So the strategists for McAuliffe, Brian Moran and Creigh Deeds don't necessarily mind when their appearances elicit tiny audiences; what they care about is figuring out who will actually vote and then finding ways to target them.

The bingo moment comes when someone like Jennifer Breseman shows up. Breseman, a young mother from Reston, hasn't followed the governor's race and doesn't know beans about Moran, the former delegate from Alexandria, or Deeds, a state senator from Bath County. She's heard of McAuliffe but knows only that he was Clinton's fundraiser. Seeing the ex-president come out to embrace his friend is working for her: "It definitely makes me more favorable to him, knowing that it's worth it for a president to come here for this." (Breseman chuckled over the steps she had to take to explain to her little ones whom they were waiting to see. What finally got them to understand was when Mom said that this was "Hillary's husband." "They've heard of her," Breseman said, "but they weren't born when he was president.")

Mo Elleithee, senior strategist for the McAuliffe campaign, sees no downside to bringing in the former president, even if Clinton lost to Republicans both times he was on the ballot in Virginia, even if Barack Obama trounced Clinton's wife in last year's Virginia primary. "Having Bill Clinton here helps people wake up to the fact that there's a primary coming," Elleithee said. "He can be a validator as a governor who has created jobs in tough times."

Clinton made exactly that pitch in his five-minute speech to the 211 people who stood four deep to hear him. (The appearance did attract four TV news crews, not bad in a governor's race starved for media attention.) "Everybody says, 'Oh, Bill Clinton's got to be there because of what Terry McAuliffe did for him' — and that's true," the ex-president said with a devilish grin and a knowing nod. "But this is more than that." He touted McAuliffe as a truth-teller who will "talk about the lemons" as well as "the ice cream," and who will keep spending under control as he creates incentives for businesses to move to Virginia.

In a race against two legislators whose support is deepest among the political activists who tend to dominate in a low-turnout primary, McAuliffe is counting on Clinton's star power to rally voters who might otherwise not stir themselves to go back to the polls so soon after November's historic vote.

"I was a totally apolitical person until last year, when I worked for Obama," said Nancy Muniz, a retiree who came out with her husband, mainly to see Clinton. "He's been forgiven for his indiscretions by now, so we wanted to see him. As for McAuliffe, well, I don't know much. We're still trying out this politics thing."

The irony of this race is that McAuliffe, who worked his tail off to defeat Obama in Virginia's primary last year, wins only if he can persuade some of those Obama-inspired political newbies to get back in the water.

It's no walk in the park 05/17/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 17, 2009 4:30am]

    

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