Thanks to a late surge of undecided voters in his direction, state Sen. Creigh Deeds appears to have moved ahead of former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and former state Del. Brian Moran on the eve of Virginia's June 9 Democratic primary.
It's a startling turn of events for a governor's race overshadowed by the outsize personality and deep pockets of McAuliffe, whose lead in the polls has dramatically dwindled in recent weeks at the hands of a veteran state legislator and country lawyer with a donkey named Harry S Truman.
While it's still unclear who will turn out to vote in Virginia's Democratic primary, much less who will win, the campaigns and other veteran observers agree that the once-sleepy spring contest will probably more closely resemble the low turnout model of 2006 - when 155,784 voters nominated Jim Webb, then thought to be an uphill challenger against then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) - than the 980,997 who turned out in last year's historic presidential primary.
On Saturday, stretching out his arms as a fisherman would to show the size of a prize catch, McAuliffe explained to a handful of volunteers at his campaign headquarters the difficulty of trying to prepare for Tuesday's primary.
"Now, when Jim Webb and Harris Miller [ran in the 2006 Senate primary, there were] 150,000 votes - when Barack and Hillary [ran, it was] a million," he said, gesturing to either side of his body.
"It's going to be somewhere in here," McAuliffe said, bringing his hands back in and prompting chuckles from the small group.
That sort of guesswork is the best McAuliffe, Moran and Deeds can venture for what is Virginia's first competitive Democratic gubernatorial contest in the last quarter-century.
That unpredictable turnout model, combined with plummeting newspaper revenue, has kept the two most reliable gauges of Virginia campaigns, The Washington Post and Mason Dixon polls, out of the field - leaving all parties in the dark about who will show up and which lever they will pull.
Each of the three candidates have scenarios under which they think they could win the right to take on former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, the GOP nominee, in what will be perhaps the closest-watched campaign in the country this fall.
The perception of November electability and the coveted endorsement of The Washington Post - both key in a low-turnout primary dominated by voters who closely follow politics - has propelled Deeds from a distant third place in the polls to prohibitive favorite going into Election Day.
A longtime legislator from rural Bath County - best known to outsiders as home to the elegant Homestead resort and its restorative hot springs along the West Virginia line - Deeds has shot up in recent polls, with even Mike Henry, McAuliffe's top aide, acknowledging that Deeds is "surging."
And as if to prove the point, both McAuliffe and Moran launched a series of attacks on their rival in the waning days of the campaign - and three of Deeds' state Senate colleagues endorsed him on Monday.
Deeds' path to victory is fairly simple, explained his campaign manager, Joe Abbey. He needs to pile up large margins in rural Virginia, especially in the western part of the state and then keep it close in Northern Virginia against two rivals who call the Washington suburbs home.
"We don't have to win" Northern Virginia, said Abbey.
He cited the undecided voters who are apparently moving toward his candidate and said that others who've not yet settled on a candidate could follow.
"These are the ones who haven't bougt into McAuliffe, despite all the millions he's spent, and haven't bought into Brian, even though he's from there," said Abbey.
While Deeds has not worked the African-American vote nearly as hard as McAuliffe has, he did make a handful of stops at black churches in Tidewater over the weekend and launched a last-minute ad aimed at African-Americans in the region featuring a pair of veteran black state senators.
Just as in Northern Virginia, Deeds is only hoping to keep the African-American vote close.
Overall, Abbey said he thought turnout would be far closer to the 2006 Senate race - somewhere in the high-100,000 or low-200,000 range.
"You'll see some new voters," he said, acknowledging McAuliffe's efforts to expand the pool beyond party regulars. "But we just haven't seen the attention to this race from an average voter perspective."
The former DNC chairman and McLean resident had few ties to Virginia's political community before he expressed a desire to run for governor, so he's had to devise an ambitious strategy of turning out nontraditional primary voters, including some of those energized by last year's presidential race.
McAuliffe calls them "surge voters."
"These are the new, young lot of the Obama voters," he explained Saturday, predicting a larger-than-expected turnout.
If it's just a friends-and-neighbors contest made up of the same political activists who populate county party committees, McAuliffe isn't likely to fare well.
Henry, McAuliffe's campaign manager, acknowledged that turnout would be modest but said the combination of TV ads, field organization and campaign spending would send turnout above the 2006 Senate contest.
McAuliffe's camp is also counting on a strong showing in the state's black community, which he has aggressively courted.
Henry said that African-American turnout would account for just over 20 percent of statewide turnout, with many of those voters hailing from the Richmond and Tidewater area.
Henry said they also had high hopes for the exurbs around Washington.
Most of all, though, McAuliffe is pinning his hopes on an extensive field operation to push voters to the polls. He has raised millions of dollars, largely from out-of-state donors, to set up 14 field offices around the state. Staffers and volunteers have been deployed to knock on thousands of doors and make thousands of phone calls in the campaign's final days.
For Moran, a former state house Democratic leader from Alexandria who resigned to run for governor, the key is to maximize what used to be called "the courthouse crowd."
That is, the local elected officials in each county and those that they're close with.
Such sheriffs, supervisors and commissioners of revenue are reliable primary voters - and Moran has worked them diligently for years as he racked up miles on his car in advance of the gubernatorial race.
"Brian has an unprecedented list of local electeds statewide," said Steve Jarding, a top Moran strategist. "It's way more than the other two combined. And with those, come benefits. They have lists; they have core supporters. So if we can get the vote out that we've identified and worked, we should be OK."
Jarding, like Deeds campaign manager Joe Abbey, said Virginia Democrats aren't used to gubernatorial primaries and that turnout would therefore be modest - perhaps not much higher than the 155,000 who came out for the 2006 Senate primary.
Moran is counting on a big margin coming out of his native Northern Virginia.
"Brian is the only guy in the race with a strong geographic base," said Jarding, noting Deeds' lightly populated home county and McAuliffe's relative unfamiliarity with the local and state poliical scene.
The hope among Moran backers is that the turnout from Northern Virginia accounts for something around the 45 percent it represented in the 2006 Senate primary.
In the Washington suburbs and beyond, Moran also hopes to win among the sort of single-issue voters who often come out for primaries. He's staked out positions to the left of his rivals on guns, gay rights and the environment that could draw support from progressive activists.
Moran seems to have been eclipsed by his two rivals in the final days of the campaign and has not been able to afford to buy TV ads in the pricey Washington media market.
But Jarding noted that Webb, too, was outspent and outgunned on the airwaves.
By Jonathan Martin