Terry McAuliffe wants to talk jobs, economic development and how his business experience positions him to further the pro-growth agenda of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, whom he hopes to replace.
He's also quick to cast Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as a socially conservative ideologue whose hyper-charged partisanship alienates large swaths of the electorate.
What McAuliffe is less eager to discuss are the ways in which he differs, politics aside, from those Republican officeholders: namely, his lack of state government experience.
In his second run for Virginia's highest office, McAuliffe finds himself in the unusual position of aspiring to a post without having come up through the legislature or another wing of state government.
That makes him something of an anomaly. Going back 30 years, every governor save one - Mark Warner, now a U.S. senator - either served in the General Assembly or in the statewide elected offices of attorney general or lieutenant governor.
McAuliffe lacks that experience.
In a recent interview, McAuliffe wouldn't give specific responses when asked about technical aspects of legislative and governor's office operations. Asked if he could name the positions in the governor's Cabinet, for instance, McAuliffe said: "Maybe could, maybe couldn't. That's not what I'm going to do here today because that's not what I'm talking about."
McAuliffe called such queries "gotcha" questions that he wouldn't answer, saying Virginians care more about kitchen-table issues.
"They're going to want to know who is going to get out of bed every single day, and walk into that office and pick up that phone and do something about moving the government along that can create jobs and economic development," he told The Virginian-Pilot. "That is what they care about."
That kind of message helped carry McDonnell to a landslide victory in 2009 even as Democrats branded him as an archconservative with outdated social ideas on women and gay rights.
While McAuliffe and fellow Democrats will likewise try to caricature Cuccinelli, one thing he'll find difficult is flustering the conservative prosecutor on a governance question.
Virginia's gubernatorial race stands as the marquee political contest in the country this year as one of the few big elections on the map, especially because it pits a conservative lighting rod against a prominent Democrat with strong ties to the Clinton machine.
"Voters care a lot about ideology and tradition, but they also care about competence," said Old Dominion University political science professor Jesse Richman. "There's a certain competence capability that people expect of their governor, and if a candidate can't climb above that bar, there are problems in store."
Cuccinelli, a former state senator noted for his policy grasp, stumped former Del. Steve Shannon of Fairfax County during a 2009 debate when he asked the Democratic nominee a technical question about attorney general office functions.
For McAuliffe, perceptions about his awareness of Virginia remain an issue his campaign will continue to face, and one Cuccinelli's camp will look to exploit.
They've already tried several times. Conflicting statements on why McAuliffe's GreenTech Automotive established an electric car plant in Mississippi rather than Virginia ensnared the candidate and provided political fodder for Cuccinelli.
McAuliffe said in December the company wanted to establish the facility here but that the Virginia Economic Development Partnership chose not to bid for its business. Email between GreenTech officials and the economic partnership paint a different picture, one of a state entity performing due diligence of a potential corporate partner that ultimately opted for a different site.
McAuliffe now chalks it up to a business decision by company officials.
Cuccinelli campaign manager Dave Rexrode said McAuliffe is company chairman and "only has himself to blame for creating jobs in Mississippi that could have been created in Virginia."
Rexrode's team recently highlighted McAuliffe fundraisers in New York and Florida in an effort to suggest that the former Democratic National Committee chairman has tenuous ties to Virginia and fleeting political interests.
Overcoming portrayals as someone more familiar with Washington's Capitol Hill than Richmond's Capitol Square remains a challenge for McAuliffe, even though he has lived in McLean for 21 years and raised his family there.
He's worked hard to shed that Beltway image, traveling to "every nook and cranny of Virginia... listening to folks," McAuliffe said.
One thing that sticks out about McAuliffe now, observed University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, is how he's always jotting copious notes in a pad.
"Most of it you learn through osmosis through the years dealing with it on a daily basis," Sabato said of state issues and practices, but McAuliffe "has none of that. That's one of the reasons people have legitimate, honest questions about his ability to be an effective governor."
McAuliffe says he has a firm handle on policy, and would surround himself with seasoned advisers if elected. He likens himself to Warner - both trained attorneys and businessmen who once worked together at the DNC - though Warner had deeper roots in state politics before running for governor.
McAuliffe says his career of "taking over struggling companies, learning them, fixing them up" is an asset he would bring to the office:
"As it relates to running the government and working with it: I've done it. I've managed many different operations. And I will be up to that."
Having a legislative foundation and relationships developed over time, said McDonnell, made things "a lot easier for me to be able to hit the ground running." Without that, he said, "your learning curve is much longer."
McAuliffe says he would bring the same sort of "fresh, new business approach with mainstream ideas" that Warner did.
He cites, for example, his work to muster votes for the recent statewide road-funding compromise.
Pilot writer Bill Bartel contributed to this report.