WAKEFIELD, Virginia (CNN) – The crowds weren’t drinking tea on Tax Day in southeast Virginia.
At the Shad Planking - Virginia’s annual backwoods carnival of fish and politics - bourbon and beer were the cocktails of choice. And although the candidates for governor who showed up at this year’s event didn’t actually booze, they were definitely taking some shots.
Their main target, as expected, was Terry McAuliffe, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee who decided last year to seek the governorship.
McAuliffe arrived at the Shad Planking making no apologies for the amount of money he’s spending in the 2009 race.
Drivers making their way into Wakefield were overwhelmed by nearly 25,000 “McAuliffe for Governor” signs planted along the roadside, put there by 60 full-time campaign staffers and 40 more volunteers. Circling the skies above the event was a plane towing a sign reading “New Energy, New Jobs: Vote Terry.” McAuliffe even brought along a man dressed in a chicken suit wearing a diaper, meant to demonstrate the candidate’s enthusiasm for turning chicken waste into re-usable energy.
So when McAuliffe and his rivals took the Shad Planking stage to deliver some traditional light-hearted political jibes, it was open season on the millionaire from McLean.
Calling McAuliffe “a national guy” and a “professional fundraiser,” Republican Bob McDonnell ribbed the former DNC chair for being a first-timer at the event, a tradition that dates back to the 1930s. But the GOP hopeful also acknowledged that McAuliffe's spending spree has been a boon to the commonwealth.
“I really do want to thank Terry for the $2.6 million he’s pumped into the Virginia economy over the last two months,” McDonnell cracked.
Brian Moran, one of three candidates for the Democratic nomination, said he arrived late to the gathering “because it took a lot of time to knock down all the Terry signs on the way in.”
“It became obvious this was his first Shad Planking when he started setting up a martini bar on the way in,” Moran said of his rival, explaining that Shad (the bony fish plucked from the James River) is best washed down with beer.
The third Democratic candidate, state senator Creigh Deeds, didn’t attend the annual spring ritual, instead opting to campaign in Southwest Virginia.
McAuliffe, grinning on the stage while the barbs flew his way, took it in stride. When a rowdy crowd-member shouted at him, “Where’s Hillary?,” McAuliffe shouted right back. “I think you have a crush on her!,” he yelled. “Give me your number. I’ll introduce you to her!”
As his turn to speak came, he cheerily admitted that this was his first visit to a Shad Planking and vowed: “I’m going to come back the next four years as governor of the commonwealth of Virginia.”
As for that vast army of campaign signs lining the roadways of Wakefield? A few of the politicians on stage shifted uncomfortably in their seats when McAuliffe offered up his defense.
“It’s not about the size of the signs,” he said. “It’s about keeping it up all night!”