RICHMOND, Va. -- Look no further than Virginia to catch a glimpse of the GOP's national dilemma.
As the Old Dominion becomes a firmly centrist state, more closely resembling the rest of the country demographically and politically, Virginia Republicans are shifting rightward.
After President Barack Obama carried the state twice, it's plausible that the party will nominate a slate of three movement conservative white males for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general next year.
At a traditional party gathering earlier this month called "The Advance," Virginia GOP leaders said there was no need to retreat -- or even accommodate.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the GOP's presumptive gubernatorial nominee, was defiant at the gathering, citing Virginia Republican revivals in past years following Democratic presidential wins.
Cuccinelli scorned what he said were "media" calls for GOP "change, re-evaluation, remake, retreat."
But that's precisely how Gov. Bob McDonnell won so convincingly in 2009, one year after Obama carried Virginia by 7 percentage points, and it's the same path many Republicans expect Cuccinelli, a tea party favorite, to embrace next year if he's serious about keeping the governor's mansion in GOP hands.
McDonnell surely wouldn't cotton to calling his repackaging from anti-abortion crusader and Pat Robertson acolyte to a "Bobs for Jobs," son-of-northern-Virginia pragmatist as any sort of retreat. As he often notes, he remains an unapologetic social conservative.
But in an interview here, the governor, who just finished a stint as Republican Governor's Association chairman and will consider 2016 presidential run, was abundantly clear about what sort of campaign he expected Cuccinelli to run.
"After you convince all of your conservative Republican allies and voters in the state that you're right on those issues, you then have to find a way to capture the majority of the independent vote that represent 30 percent or 40 percent of the electorate," McDonnell said, speaking generally and careful to avoid mentioning the attorney general by name. "And many times that's as much a matter of tone and style."
By that logic, wouldn't nominating Cuccinelli, a hard-charging conservative who has sought a national profile, be a risk?
"No," McDonnell shot back. "Because people grow into the office, and they grow into being a candidate."
Whether Cuccinelli, who admits his own blunt style can be "cold-blooded," is willing or able to pull off such a McDonnell-like reinvention is on the minds of demoralized Republicans on both sides of the Potomac.
Some Republicans who attended an Alexandria fundraiser for Cuccinelli earlier this month came away less than impressed, saying he rambled and sounded more like an overly earnest pundit than a candidate.
Given a question on immigration, the attorney general puzzled attendees by discussing human trafficking and repeatedly using the word "illegals."
Other Republicans, worried Cuccinelli is micro-managing his own campaign, recoiled at a curt note the attorney general sent to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) earlier this month on the Virginia GOP's nominating process.
"In the future, should you have any concerns, I would appreciate a call," wrote Cuccinelli to Virginia's most powerful member of Congress.
Cuccinelli's top political adviser, Chris LaCivita, says anxious Republicans have little to worry about and that his candidate is going to focus on kitchen table issues.
"What are the issues that the people of Virginia care about right now?" asked LaCivita. "They care about jobs, they care about what's going on in D.C. and how it's going to affect them, and they care about transportation and they care about education. Those are the issues we are going to be talking about."
What gnaws at Virginia campaign veterans, though, is the degree to which Cuccinelli is already defined as a polarizing culture warrior at a moment when Republicans seem to be clamoring for kinder and gentler candidates. McDonnell was able to remake his political persona in large part because he wasn't well known outside Virginia's political class. But after three years of making headlines for suing the federal government to block health care reform, telling Virginia's public colleges they can't legally ban discrimination against gays and targeting a former University of Virginia professor's work on climate change, the attorney general is far better known than most down-ballot statewide officeholders.
A Quinnipiac survey last month found that 45 percent of Virginians said they didn't know enough about Cuccinelli to have an opinion of him. By comparison, 68 percent of Virginians said the same about Democratic governor hopeful Terry McAuliffe and 70 percent of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who decided not to take on Cuccinelli for the gubernatorial nomination. Private surveys have Cuccinelli's recognition among the public even higher -- far more than McDonnell before he began his move from attorney general to governor four years ago.
Bolling, who last month quit the race and has since refused to endorse Cuccinelli, said flatly what is on the minds of many other Virginia Republicans.
"I question his electability in a statewide campaign for governor," the lieutenant governor said on a Virginia radio show recently.
Bolling's perspective is, of course, hardly that of a dispassionate observer. But that Cuccinelli is even the Virginia GOP's standard-bearer in the first place speaks to what has taken place inside the party.
Republican politicians such as McDonnell, former Sen. George Allen and Bolling, each considered a conservative a decade ago, have been outflanked on the right and paid a political price for it.
McDonnell saw his vice-presidential hopes vanish earlier in the year when conservative state legislators put the phrase "transvaginal probe" in the national political lexicon. Then he watched pro-Cuccinelli forces defy him and his preferred gubernatorial candidate, Bolling, by changing the 2013 nominating method from primary to convention.
Allen was hammered from the right during the primary for his old Senate seat earlier this year. He won the nomination easily, but many of the same attacks -- that he was a big spender who increased the federal debt -- were used against him in the general election.
Bolling, a former state senator now in his second term as lieutenant governor, deferred to McDonnell in 2009 with the understanding that the gubernatorial nomination would be his in 2013. McDonnell, grateful that Bolling sat out last time, got behind the lieutenant governor early on. But Cuccinelli was never party to any deal, and he decided not only to cut in front of Bolling but engineered a takeover of local Republican committees that ensured a switch of the nomination process to a conservative-dominated convention.
That all this took place between consecutive Obama victories in the state doesn't appear to have fazed Republican leaders.
Virginia GOP Chairman Pat Mullins insisted at the state party's "Advance" that Republicans still have a winning formula.
"Virginia's a conservative state, and when we stick up for our beliefs, and our values, and our principles ... we win elections," said Mullins, according to The Washington Post. "When we choose to run like Democrats, we lose elections because we haven't given anybody a choice."
Mullins's assertion, even with latitude given for the rah-rah circumstances of a party rally, confounds many longtime observers of Old Dominion politics.
"Their election analysis is a predictable one-note samba," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "It's never their issues or their inclusiveness. Therefore, the solution is always to look for a better messenger for hard-core conservatism, ignoring the hard reality that some of their message, especially on social issues, is alienating large segments of the population in an increasingly diverse and moderate state."
"There's this tremendous disconnect," commented one Richmond Republican hand of how the GOP has become more conservative even as Democrats have won two presidential races, two of the last three gubernatorial contests and both Senate seats. "It seems that both in Virginia and nationally the movement conservatives are getting more and more rabid and less enthralled with establishment conservatives like George Allen and more into the crusaders."
What heartens Virginia Republicans, at least in the short term, is that the composition of the electorate in the state's odd-year gubernatorial races includes fewer "federal voters" -- those urban and suburban dwellers who usually turn out only in presidential years. If such Virginians don't show up at the polls in 2013, Cuccinelli, who enjoys fervent grass-roots support, will find his task easier.
That's not to say the attorney general is forfeiting "new Virginia." A McLean native and former state senator from Fairfax County, Cuccinelli, 44, has seen the demographic changes in his home region and is committed to campaigning for votes outside the realm of white conservatives.
"We're not taking any particular group for granted or vote for granted, and we're not writing anybody off," said LaCivita, noting that the attorney general has done work on wrongful convictions and victims' rights that will appeal beyond the tea party crowd.
And, Republicans note with all the optimism they can summon, in McAuliffe, Cuccinelli won't be running against a popular figure like Sen. Mark Warner or Sen.-elect Tim Kaine but a Democrat with ample vulnerabilities who was thumped in the 2009 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
"Which of the two devils do you want to deal with?" cracked a state capitol insider.
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