By John Whitesides
FALLS CHURCH, Virginia (Reuters) - Hillary Clinton returned to the campaign trail on Saturday to endorse old friend Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor's race, urging voters to reject the "scorched earth" politics that led to the recent government shutdown.
At her first overtly political appearance since leaving her post as secretary of state in February, the former Democratic senator and first lady said the outcome of the bitter governor's battle would show whether voters were ready to choose common sense over ideology.
She received a hero's welcome from the packed crowd in a theater in Falls Church, a Washington suburb, during an appearance certain to heighten speculation about a possible 2016 presidential bid.
Clinton focused on praising McAuliffe, the former national Democratic party chairman and a longtime friend, as a strong leader who could rise above the divisive politics of the federal shutdown and debt ceiling fight.
While she never mentioned McAuliffe's Republican opponent, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a staunch anti-abortion and social conservative, Clinton said the Republican agenda was being driven by its most conservative members.
"When politicians choose scorched earth over common ground, when they operate in what I call the evidence-free zone with ideology trumping everything else, we see that families in Virginia and across the country have felt the consequences," Clinton said.
"The whole country is watching this election, watching to see whether the voters of Virginia lead the way of turning from divisive politics and getting back to common sense and common ground," she said.
McAuliffe, a close ally of Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, and co-chairman of Hillary Clinton's failed 2008 presidential campaign, holds a solid lead over Cuccinelli in recent polls before the November 5 election.
That lead has been fueled by a commanding double-digit advantage among women - an edge that Clinton's appearance at a 'Women for McAuliffe' rally in the politically moderate northern Virginia suburbs was designed to exploit.
The free tickets to the rally were snapped up quickly and the crowd of more than 700, many wearing "Ready for Hillary" buttons, began lining up hours before the event.
'A ROLE MODEL'
"It's been my dream to see Hillary," said Kerry Tousignant, a recent college graduate and a volunteer coordinator at a domestic violence non-profit in Alexandria, Virginia. "She's a role model for all women, no matter your politics."
Attorney Ali Anwar obtained the tickets for his wife, Tara McCluskey, whom he described as "a huge Hillary fan."
"Hillary has faced a lot of adversity, politically and personally, and she's handled it very well," McCluskey said. "She's a leader."
For his part, McAuliffe was happy to take a back seat and introduce the headliner, calling Clinton an "inspiration" and saying he was "proud to call her a friend."
Campaign aides for Cuccinelli, who has portrayed McAuliffe as an ethically challenged political huckster, called McAuliffe "the booking agent for the Lincoln Bedroom" during his days as a fundraiser for Bill Clinton.
"If there was any doubt that Terry McAuliffe would bring Washington D.C., big-government politics to Richmond, today is your proof," said Richard Cullen, the communications director for Cuccinelli.
Clinton has said she is not ready to start thinking about a possible White House bid in 2016. While she has appeared in public frequently since leaving the State Department, she had not hit the campaign trail for political rallies until Saturday.
She enthusiastically pitched in on McAuliffe's message of the day, holding up a card and encouraging supporters to fill it out to help the campaign turn out voters.
"I've been in a lot of elections," Clinton said, drawing cheers. "I know at the end of the day it all comes down to who takes the time to show up and vote."
She added, "Terry has always been there for me and I'm pleased to be here for him."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)