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Clinton's Party

Terry McAuliffe, friend of Bill, seizes the Democratic reins

Jan 1, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 16 • By MATTHEW REES
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That will win him plaudits from Democrats. So will his expected willingness to accept a role that's relatively narrow. After the harrowing experience with Ed Rendell, the recently departed party chairman who committed a gaffe nearly every time he spoke, leading Democrats will be happy with McAuliffe if he functions as nothing more than a full-time fund-raiser. Mike McCurry, a former Clinton spokesman and an enthusiastic McAuliffe backer, thinks his friend will be content with this role: "He is more on the schmooze side than the substance side of politics."

But Democrats can only keep their fingers crossed and hope that the thin ice on which McAuliffe skates never caves in. Over the past decade he's been mixed up in a number of complicated business deals that have attracted the scrutiny of federal investigators. Republicans are likely to intensify the scrutiny of McAuliffe; a leading Republican strategist told me, "Choosing him is very risky. There's so much attached to him that something is bound to blow up." McAuliffe naturally professes total innocence -- he once told Business Week, "The worst thing I've ever gotten is a speeding ticket." One of those who vouch for him is his fund-raising mentor, Tony Coelho, the former congressman who temporarily chaired Gore's presidential campaign. ("He's about as honest as they come," Coelho once told reporter Tim Burger.) But given Coelho's own checkered past, praise from him for honesty is a bit like praise from Madonna for modesty.

Those potential problems notwithstanding, McAuliffe would seem to be well positioned to have a successful chairmanship. In the aftermath of the Florida election controversy, Democratic voters are infinitely more hyped up than they otherwise would be after losing a presidential election. And their party is poised to win majorities in the House and Senate two years from now, for which McAuliffe will inevitably get a chunk of credit. He may even help prevent an excessively divisive presidential nominating process in 2004, given his clout within the party -- not to mention his experience wrestling alligators.

Matthew Rees is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.