VIRGINIA BEACH — With cannoli and cocktails, sticky s’mores and local beer, statewide Republican candidates eager to put November’s losses behind them turned toward 2013, and more toward their base.
The annual gathering known as the Republican Advance kicked off with a smorgasbord battle waged by GOP candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, and featuring something unexpected on the menu: Oliver North.
The retired Marine and Iran-contra figure headlined the hospitality suite for Pete Snyder, a technology entrepreneur and recent Fox news commentator running for lieutenant governor. While attendees swooned over state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain’s brisket and praised the quality of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II’s cannoli, North’s surprise appearance was the talk of the annual gathering.
“Just bringing Ollie — that is impressive,” said Larry Cirignano of Alexandria, state director of American Catholics for Religious Freedom. “But ask me the guy’s name who did it.”
Whether North’s appearance boosts Snyder’s prospects, North’s warm reception — and the decision by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling to drop out of the race for Virginia governor — may say something about where activists want to take the state party.
“Virginia’s a conservative state, and when we stick up for our beliefs, and our values, and our principles . . . we win elections,” state GOP Chairman Pat Mullins told the gathering at breakfast Saturday. “When we choose to run like Democrats, we lose elections because we haven’t given anybody a choice.”
Cuccinelli, who received a standing ovation before and after his remarks at breakfast, hammered home the position that Virginia Republicans need to embrace their traditional platform.
“Conservatism is not dead. It is not old. It is not worn out. It is still alive and thriving,” he said. “. . . We’re not going to lie down. We’re going to get right back up.”
Not everyone was ready to fall in line. Among the 650 activists at the weekend-long event were some who would have preferred Bolling over Cuccinelli, partly because they think his less-confrontational style might have played better with swing voters. Many were still talking about how Bolling had exited the race, with statements that he would not endorse Cuccinelli and hints that he might consider an independent bid. His actions — and his decision not to attend this weekend’s events — seemed to loom larger for the crowd than Republican Mitt Romney’s failure to win the White House just weeks before.
“Not being here this weekend makes a very strong statement,” said Wendell Walker of Lynchburg. “As a party activist and a friend, I’d really like to sit down with Bill.”
Many said they were relieved that the party will apparently be spared a bruising battle for the top of the ticket.
There is another Republican who has declared himself a candidate but did not attend — doubly surprising since he is best known as a party crasher. Tareq Salahi, who sashayed past White House security into a state dinner, was a no-show in Virginia Beach. He is not considered a serious threat to Cuccinelli.
Cuccinelli is likely to face Terry McAuliffe, former Democratic National Committee Chairman. Former congressman Tom Perriello has approached prominent members of the party in recent weeks to let them know that he is at least considering a run, Virginia Democratic operatives have told The Washington Post. Perriello has not responded to messages seeking comment.
With the GOP race for governor looking less than competitive, much of the focus this weekend was down ticket. No fewer than seven Republicans are seeking the nomination for lieutenant governor — a field so large that one of the more popular lapel stickers read: “I am not running for lieutenant governor.”
In addition to Snyder, they are: former delegate Jeannemarie Devolites Davis; Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter of Prince William County; state Sen. Stephen H. Martin of Chesterfield; Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors; Susan Stimpson, chairwoman of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors; and E.W. Jackson, a Chesapeake minister who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in this year’s U.S. Senate race.
Two Democrats are seeking the office: Aneesh Chopra, the nation’s first chief technology officer; and state Sen. Ralph S. Northam of Norfolk, a pediatric neurologist who plans to make a formal announcement Thursday.
Of the Republicans, all but Jackson and Lingamfelter hosted suites. Only Snyder offered up a conservative star, but there were other ways to lure attendees into their suites. Davis not only served ice cream, but ice cream scooped into cones made on the spot with a century-old press.
“Your job is to walk around every floor with ice cream and when they ask where you got it, say, ‘Fourth floor,’ ” one Davis aide told another in jest.
Obenshain, who is running for attorney general, had one of the more elaborate spreads.
“Best one!” Clarence C.J. Sailor, 31, of Chester told Obenshain as he left the suite, complimenting the senator on his brisket.
His rival for the nomination, Del. Rob B. Bell III (R-Albemarle), went a more modest but creative route. He served up s’mores, a snack best associated with Boy Scout jamborees. They were easy on the campaign budget and evoked his Eagle Scout status.
Two Democrats are also seeking the office being vacated by Cuccinelli: Justin Fairfax, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia; and Sen. Mark Herring of Loudoun.
Errin Haines contributed to this story.