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It's only been three weeks since Republicans explained their thumping in the 2012 elections by saying they needed to reac...
It's only been three weeks since Republicans explained their thumping in the 2012 elections by saying they needed to reach out to women, Hispanics and young voters.
But it now seems that one of their chief standard-bearers in 2013 will be a national conservative firebrand who has aligned himself with some of his party's most controversial causes: Virginia Republican Ken Cuccinelli.
On the day his chief rival for the GOP gubernatorial nod dropped out of contention, Virginia Republicans rallied around Cuccinelli -- their attorney general who spearheaded a lawsuit against Obamacare and ruled in 2010 that police officers are allowed to check the immigration status of those they stop or arrest.
Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling dropped out of the governor's race Wednesday after it became abundantly clear he had no real chance to win the nomination at a May party convention that will be dominated by conservative activists.
Meanwhile, Democrats seem to be coalescing around former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe after Sen. Mark Warner took a pass right before Thanksgiving.
Progressive darling Tom Perriello, the one-term congressman from the Charlottesville area who is now president and CEO of the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, is considering a run, sources said. But most insiders do not expect him to ultimately get in the race.
Many party leaders and top GOP strategists on Wednesday hinted at private anxieties about "Cooch" -- his nickname -- and his position on the right side of the ideological spectrum. But most Republicans think that clearing the field now improves their chances of winning the governorship next fall by allowing Cuccinelli to move early into general election mode.
But there's no doubt that picking the high-profile Cuccinelli as their standard-bearer could cause something of a public relations headache for Republicans, fresh off a defeat of Mitt Romney that was largely caused by his inability to attract enough non-white, non-male voters.
As attorney general, Cuccinelli sued the Environmental Protection Agency over greenhouse gas regulations. He lost a court fight to release the emails of a University of Virginia professor who studies climate change. He pushed for building regulations that make it harder for abortion clinics to operate. He issued advisory opinions that made it harder for schools to prevent students from bringing guns onto campus.
On immigration, Cuccinelli's own language on his 2013 gubernatorial campaign website is harsh in tone. "Ken is committed to solutions that remove the economic incentives that encourage illegal immigration," it reads. "Illegal aliens who choose to break additional laws by stealing identities, dealing drugs, joining criminal gangs, driving without a license or committing fraud must receive prompt justice and deportation. No ifs, ands, or buts."
He then lists accomplishments on immigration such as seeking to use the office of the attorney general to implement E-Verify for state employers, opposition to in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and the fact that he sponsored a law that allows termination of state contractors who knowingly employ illegal immigrants.
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore said in an interview that Republicans were hurt by Romney's talk of self-deportation of illegal immigrants, messaging that scared women and the leaked tape about the "47 percent" of the population that depended on government services. He is disappointed Bolling dropped out of the gubernatorial race because he thinks a primary would have allowed the party to litigate what went wrong in 2012.
He's withholding judgment about whether Cuccinelli will be able to broadly appeal to Republicans, though he notes that the party traditionally rallies in the face of a liberal Democrat.
"If the attorney general is the nominee, we don't yet know what themes he will run on," Gilmore said after Bolling's announcement. "We don't know whether his background is something he can run on. ... There's no way of answering that question yet."
While some Republicans think the party needs to fundamentally retool after Obama became the first Democrat to carry Virginia twice since Franklin D. Roosevelt, Virginia Republican Party Chairman Pat Mullins cites GOP gains in 2009, 2010 and 2011 to make the case that major reforms are not needed.
"We didn't lose by a whole lot, so it's not a major overhaul that we need to do," Mullins said. "It's just to address what we didn't do that we could have that would have brought in those extra 150,000 votes we needed."
Mullins plans to appoint task forces from the state central committee to look into how Romney and 2012 Senate candidate George Allen could have prevailed.
Before being elected in 2009, Cuccinelli spent eight years in the state Senate. Supporters note that he won in a moderate Northern Virginia district as an unabashed conservative.
Those who know him insist his hard-core public image is at odds with his fun-loving, one-of-the-guys personality. They also say he has a deeply competitive streak, which will drive him to avoid some of the more incendiary language that propelled him to where he is now.
With New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's sky-high approval ratings making him look safe, the Virginia governor's race is likely to be the marquee contest of 2013. Both sides say it will be highly competitive.
Just like their Democratic counterparts do with Cuccinelli, many Republicans salivate at the chance to take on McAuliffe, a Bill Clinton consigliere who lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary when he ran four years ago. He finished second behind state Sen. Creigh Deeds, who lost to outgoing, term-limited Gov. Bob McDonnell by 18 points.
"Sure, Ken's a conservative candidate," Mullins said. "He makes no bones about that. ... Bill Bolling is conservative also. ... Terry McAuliffe running on the Democratic side almost makes Barack Obama look like a moderate. He's way out in left field."
With no caps on the size of donations in the Commonwealth, this will almost certainly be the most expensive race in state history. McAuliffe is one of the best fundraisers in political history, and Cuccinelli can count on big checks from deep-pocketed conservatives and lots of small-dollar cash from the activist right.
It will also be one of the nastiest, as both candidates have long paper trails to allow the other side to present them as a radical, out-of-touch extremist.
A senior Virginia Republican strategist said Cuccinelli can win by following the textbook model that drove McDonnell's victory.
"Gov. McDonnell did not hide his core conservative principles, but he talked about the issues voters cared about," the strategist said. "He was able to connect with voters in every region of the state."
"Both are fairly polarizing figures," he added of the two 2013 front-runners. "Whoever runs the better campaign will win. The good news for Cuccinelli is the fact that this is going to be a very different electorate than it was three weeks ago."
In the 2009 governor's race, turnout was around 40 percent of registered voters. This year, in the presidential election, it was around 75 percent.
Gilmore warns fellow Republicans that McAuliffe will be more formidable than they think.
"He has a lot of personal appeal. He's a very wealthy man ... and he's very close to President Clinton," the former governor said. "At one time, I would have thought that would be a negative in Virginia, but it might not now be a negative in Virginia. We should take it very seriously."
Republican Dave Albo, a delegate who represents Fairfax Station, endorsed Cuccinelli before Wednesday. He noted that the primaries "bloodied up" Romney and that the party will now avoid them.
"It's going to be a hard race mostly because the image people have of Ken Cuccinelli ... is not good," he said. "I'm a moderate. He's a conservative. But he's a very, very smart and honest person. Ken's always supported me, too. He's not one of these guys on a mission to eradicate all people [from the GOP] who aren't super conservative."
Albo tells constituents who express concerns about the tea party favorite that they should go listen to him speak, believing that the more people get to see him, the more they will like him.
"He's totally normal. That's what gets me," Albo said. "When Ken was in the Senate, we'd play pool late at night and drink beer. He's funny. He's nice. ... The problem is it's very hard to have a personal conversation with eight and a half million people. ... He's really going to have to go out and meet people. I just don't think we win this thing on the air."
Bolling played the part of sore loser Wednesday. In the statement announcing he would suspend his campaign, he was critical of the state central committee's vote in June to opt for a convention instead of a primary.
"Conventions are by their very nature exclusive, and at a time when we need to be projecting a positive image and reaching out to involve more Virginians in the Republican Party, I am unwilling to be part of a process that could seriously damage our image and appeal," he wrote.
Not offering support for Cuccinelli, he promised to remain "actively involved in the 2013 campaigns -- perhaps not as the Republican nominee for Governor, but as a more independent voice."
Then, in a series of interviews, he kept open the possibility of running as an independent. He's holding a Thursday news conference, at which he's expected to rattle the saber a little more.
"Under normal circumstances, I would be open to the possibility of running for another term as lieutenant governor, but I would not be interested in running on a statewide ticket with Mr. Cuccinelli," Bolling told The Roanoke Times.
Preston Bryant, a former GOP delegate from Lynchburg who served in former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner's cabinet, gives McAuliffe the early edge with the business community.
McAuliffe's 2009 run allowed him to broaden his appeal outside Northern Virginia, where the New York native has lived for more than two decades. He's worked hard to cultivate relationships in Richmond and the Hampton Roads area since he lost.
"Cuccinelli is a populist," said Bryant, a senior vice president at McGuireWoods Consulting. "Populism doesn't always give great comfort to the business community. They like predictability and a steady hand. Not to say Cuccinelli won't be. It's early, so they'll need to assess both now."
A top Democratic strategist involved in the race said that one of the major knocks on the presumptive Republican nominee will be that he has traded everyday issues that voters care about for the national spotlight.
"I would love Bolling to stay in and have a bloody primary," the strategist said. "But there's always the fear that Bolling could win. Cuccinelli is the perfect candidate for us. He has the potential to say any of these outrageous things. He's got a lot of baggage and a lot of great quotes to pull out from the past. He's divisive. He's not focused on jobs and the economy."
His defenders say there are elements of his record that will play well with independents, such as prosecuting Medicaid fraud and helping to free a wrongfully imprisoned man.
"I would imagine what you'll see is exactly what you saw in the national campaign," Mullins said. "We'll want to talk about issues ... and the Democrats are going to talk personal attacks on our candidates the same way they've done for the last year."
Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.