Virginia GOP Convention Faces Tough Choice for Attorney General Nominee

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009

Virginia Republican activists face a delicate balancing act this weekend when they select a nominee for attorney general at the party's statewide convention in Richmond.

In choosing the party's candidate, an estimated 8,500 Republican delegates will have to weigh the conservative credentials of three hopefuls against the need to perform well in the moderate- and liberal-leaning precincts of vote-rich Northern Virginia.

Those conflicting demands, when combined with a field of like-minded candidates, leave many delegates with no easy path to a decision.

"I've seen more undecided folks for the attorney general contest this year than I have seen at any convention since 1994," said Ben Marchi, a convention delegate and former national party strategist.

The candidates include former federal prosecutor John Brownlee of Roanoke and two Northern Virginia Republicans, state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (Fairfax) and David M. Foster, who was chairman of the Arlington County School Board.

Brownlee, 44, an Army veteran, resigned as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia last year to pursue the attorney general post, a position he describes as a custom fit for a prosecutor. Before President George W. Bush appointed him in 2001, Brownlee had been an assistant U.S. attorney in the District.

Brownlee is perhaps best known for suing the makers of the painkiller OxyContin for deceptive marketing, a case that resulted in a $635 million settlement in 2007. On the campaign trail, he has touted his statewide appeal and work as a prosecutor.

"The distinction is that one candidate is a patent lawyer and the other is a business lawyer. I'm a prosecutor and so is Shannon. That fact alone will be divisive," he said. He was referring to Del. Stephen C. Shannon (Fairfax), who is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination in a June 9 primary.

Cuccinelli, 40, might be the most widely known candidate in the field. He is an outspoken state senator who has championed mental health reforms and managed to hold on to his seat as the region's political allegiances have shifted away from his party. He won reelection last year by 92 votes in his western Fairfax County district.

Cuccinelli, a lawyer in private practice, took an unlikely stand for a conservative politician on the death penalty this year, voting to keep the state's triggerman rule, which makes people who participate in a killing eligible for the death penalty only if they actually commit the homicide. Still, he has stuck close to conservative positions on issues such as government spending, the treatment of undocumented immigrants and gun rights.

"The strongest feedback from people I've gotten during this race is about the idea that Republicans have abandoned some of their core principles," Cuccinelli said. He also said his "proven winning ability in the middle of Northern Virginia" has been critical to the state party's recruitment efforts.

Foster, 55, a lawyer with the Washington firm of Fulbright & Jaworski, calls himself a "common-sense conservative." A former Capitol Hill staff member, Foster got his start in politics in 1996, when he ran then-Sen. John W. Warner's Arlington campaign. In 2000, Foster was elected to the Arlington School Board. He was reelected in 2003, with 62 percent of the vote, and left the board in 2007.

"We're all conservatives," Foster said of the three GOP candidates, "but I'm the only one trying to address real issues on real people's minds."

An unusual nominating procedure at the GOP convention could play a part in the outcome, according to Pat Mullins, chairman of the Virginia Republican Party.

Speeches by the candidates will be followed by the balloting. A candidate needs more than 50 percent of the vote to win the nomination. At the end of two rounds, the lowest vote-getter is forced out before another round of voting begins. Coalitions are formed, and deals are struck, often leading to surprises.

"It's a real tossup," Mullins said. "We start voting at 1:45 p.m. on Saturday, and I suspect you might not have people decide on who to vote for until 1:46 or 1:47."

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