WASHINGTON — Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia said Wednesday he would not run for president, according to Democrats familiar with his decision, concluding that his moderate profile would have limited appeal when Democratic voters appear to be choosing between younger, progressive contenders and veteran politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is expected to enter the race next week.
A storied political fund-raiser and close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mr. McAuliffe had visited the early primary state of South Carolina and made calls to his donor network in hopes of lining up support. His advisers said they thought he may be able to raise $10 million in his first three months as a candidate. And with a record of job expansion during his tenure in Virginia, which he trumpeted at every opportunity, Mr. McAuliffe believed he could be a formidable candidate in a 2020 primary with no dominant front-runner.
But while the exuberant former Democratic National Committee chairman often sounded eager to run, and even tested a centrist message targeting what he called “dishonest populism,” it became clear to him that there was limited space for a 62-year-old political veteran.
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Part of Mr. McAuliffe’s challenge was that party activists appeared to be gravitating toward candidates who were more liberal than him, such as Mr. Sanders and Senator Kamala Harris, or eying next-generation prospects such as former Representative Beto O’Rourke and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
Mr. McAuliffe was dissuaded by the early shape of the race and complained to allies in private that many Democratic voters seemed to care little about experience and accomplishments, according to advisers.
But it is the long-anticipated entry of Mr. Biden, who would be the most experienced candidate in the race, that complicated Mr. McAuliffe’s ambitions more than anybody. Mr. McAuliffe would have run on a similar, consensus-oriented platform as the former vice president and would have been pursuing many of the same fund-raisers and donors.
Mr. McAuliffe’s allies expect him to get behind Mr. Biden, though it is unclear if he would do so next week. The two are longtime friends and have talked repeatedly in recent months about their intentions. Mr. Biden has made clear to Mr. McAuliffe that he wanted the former governor to play a prominent role in his campaign, if Mr. McAuliffe did not run himself, according to multiple Democrats familiar with their conversations.
Mr. McAuliffe’s deep connections to his party’s leading donors may have hurt him in a race in which nearly every candidate is shunning super PACs and many are railing against the role of money in politics. But those contacts would make him a valued asset for Mr. Biden.
And he will also be needed in Virginia, where Democrats are hoping to reclaim both chambers of the State Legislature this November but have struggled to raise money because their top three elected leaders are all ensnared in scandal.
After making his name as a hard-charging political operative — in his youth he wrestled an alligator in exchange for a donation — Mr. McAuliffe raised hundreds of millions for Democratic campaigns and was chairman of Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid. He campaigned for Democrats across the country last year, stopping in early nominating states and general election battlegrounds alike.
He lost a primary for governor the next year before winning the governorship in 2013. He was a socially liberal but business-friendly chief executive and in early 2017 acknowledged that he would consider a presidential bid.
But after keeping the option open longer than he planned, in part because of Mr. Biden’s hesitation, Mr. McAuliffe recognized this was not his moment.