Fight for Virginia governor simmers at Republican convention

September 1, 2012

Two of the biggest rivals in Virginia politics put their battle for governor on the back burner here — where it simmered away nonetheless all convention-week long.

Whether pressing the flesh with grass-roots Virginians or hobnobbing with big-money types from all over, holding forth in interviews with home-state bloggers or national TV, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II worked not one convention but two: RNC 2012 and Virginia GOP 2013.

“They’ve been out and about,” former Republican lieutenant governor John Hager said with droll understatement. “I think they’re both concentrating on doing a lot of media and gaining visibility.”

Hager says he believes, as Bolling and Cuccinelli insist, that the two kept their eyes on the presidential race all week and that they will continue to do so through November. But the convention gave both Republicans ample opportunity to boost their prospects for next year’s nomination for governor along with Mitt Romney’s for president. And wherever they could, they made Tampa a twofer.

“It is mixing, mingling, networking,” said former Virginia congressman Tom Davis. “These are the people next year that are going to be key to making the decision.”

That will be especially true in the Bolling-Cuccinelli contest because of a decision to dump a primary election planned for next year in favor of a caucus. The Republican State Central Committee decided in October that it would hold a primary election in 2013. But a band of Cuccinelli supporters newly elected to the party’s governing board got that decision revisited and reversed in June. The about-face is expected to favor the firebrand attorney general over the more understated lieutenant governor because of the sort of voters who tend to participate in conventions.

“You have to take a day off and go to Richmond to vote. It’s a full Saturday. If you live in Northern Virginia, you have to take a day out of your life — and maybe two days,” Davis said. “The nomination belongs not to the party, but to the activists. And this is where the activists are.”

Bolling and Cuccinelli appealed to those activists in different ways as they went about the main business of rallying the Romney and Paul Ryan troops in Tampa. One spent lots of time with the delegation. The other grabbed more of the national spotlight that has endeared him to home-state tea partiers.

Bolling, the folksy consensus-builder, not only addressed the Virginia delegation one morning at a breakfast, but also stayed with its members in a Clearwater, Fla., hotel to allow for more mixing and mingling. Cuccinelli, a provocateur, lodged closer to the convention action and national media in Tampa, at a hotel hosting attorneys general from across the country. He went to the Clearwater Marriott to give a breakfast speech of his own, but it was a policy address, not a Bolling-style stemwinder.

Cuccinelli did 10 to 15 interviews during the convention. Many were quick, unscheduled pop-ins along “radio row” set up near the convention hall. But he did some national TV, including the PBS NewsHour program. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, featured him at a forum.

Bolling did his share of interviews, but with Virginia-based outlets.

At his breakfast speech, Bolling opened with a self-deprecating weight joke that is typical of him but hard to imagine coming from Cuccinelli given his swagger and trim physique.

“I have been on a little bit of a diet. I’ve lost 42 pounds,” Bolling said. “Just doing my part to reduce the size of government in Virginia.”

Stepping down from the rostrum to get closer to the crowd, the lieutenant governor went on to make the case for removing President Obama while making it clear that he had nothing personal against him.

“You know, I’m sure he’s a fine fella, good husband, good father,” Bolling said. “I think he loves our country just like we love our country. But his policies have failed America,”

Which is not to say Bolling went easy on Obama. He accused the president of wanting to turn the country into “just another Western European socialistic state.”

“That’s the effect of his policies that are destroying our financial foundation, running havoc on our economy, destroying liberty, promoting government,” he said.

Bolling got a standing ovation.

So did Cuccinelli when he gave his breakfast speech the next day.

His appearance was closed to the media at the request of the party. (Cuccinelli, hardly camera shy, had wanted it open, according to a spokesman.)

His remarks were delivered from the rostrum, attendees said. Engaging and intense — Cuccinelli doesn’t do folksy — he reportedly laid out some of the profound policy differences he has had with the current occupant of the White House.

Cuccinelli was out front in the fight against “Obamacare” as the first attorney general in the nation to file a lawsuit against the health-care overhaul. His suit ultimately was thrown out and, therefore, was not a part of the challenge that made it to the Supreme Court. But it still made him a hero in certain corners of the GOP.

As he hurried out of the Marriott on his way to his PBS interview, women in convention hats asked the attorney general to autograph American flags.

Cuccinelli told reporters who caught him on the way out how much he was looking forward to hearing one of the convention speakers that night: another famously blunt politician, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie.

“Chris Christie — you want reality-based politics upside the head, you know?” Cuccinelli said. “I think he’s a good messenger for that.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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