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Friends and foes note Cuccinelli's ability to connect

Attorney general hopeful Kenneth Cuccinelli's job approach: Take it slow and transform Virginia government.
Attorney general hopeful Kenneth Cuccinelli's job approach: Take it slow and transform Virginia government. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
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By Amy Gardner
Monday, October 19, 2009

Republican Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, a state senator from Fairfax County, hopes to be an entirely different attorney general than what Virginians have grown accustomed to.

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In addition to talking up gang prevention, Internet crimes and sex offenses against children, Cuccinelli promises to make defending Virginia's ban on gay marriage a top priority. He doesn't believe the theory of climate change. He is ready to sue the federal government if it restricts emissions or expands union powers.

Cuccinelli, 41, says he wants to transform a job most people know virtually nothing about from a steppingstone to the governor's office into a platform for long-term reform. He is prepared not to defend state laws he deems unconstitutional. He plans to scrub the books clean of what he calls burdensome regulations. He would push a constitutional amendment protecting private property rights.

Perhaps the greatest departure is that Cuccinelli has no plans to run for governor in four years, unlike the last seven people elected to the post. If anything, he envisions a long career as Virginia's top lawyer -- and a dramatic, if slow, transformation of government, state regulations and the lives of Virginians.

"This office, for someone who focuses on it day to day for a long period of time, can affect the direction of Virginia government," Cuccinelli said. "It isn't one dramatic step on any given day, or getting one bill passed. It's the gradual, slow, drip-drip-drip impact that you can have."

To win Nov. 3, Cuccinelli is running an aggressive, even combative campaign against his Democratic opponent, Stephen C. Shannon. Cuccinelli has amassed a boisterous and loyal following across Virginia, collected more campaign contributions in September than Shannon and registered ahead in all recent polls. That has left Democrats and other critics alarmed about a possible Cuccinelli win not only because he is different -- but because few of them thought it possible.

"A lot of people thought Cuccinelli was going to be easy pickin's for the Democrats," said Robert D. Holsworth, a Virginia political analyst based in Richmond. "Here's a guy who is a social conservative. He's departed from his own party on votes. But he's proven to be a very interesting campaigner. While he may be very conservative, he's saying a lot of things that resonate for people."

The attorney general is the senior partner of the state's law firm -- commander of an army of about 200 lawyers who provide legal advice to the governor, field consumer complaints and defend the state in lawsuits and criminal appeals. But few candidates talk about those mundane duties, instead promoting credentials to appeal to voters: their experience as prosecutors or their records fighting for tougher criminal sentences.

Shannon, a three-term member of the Virginia House of Delegates, is running largely on his public safety record. Shannon is a former Fairfax County prosecutor, and he co-founded, with his wife, Virginia's Amber Alert program to find missing children. Shannon is also trying to convince voters that Cuccinelli is a right-winger whose conservative ideology is out of step with Virginia.

"I'm a pro-business, law-and-order centrist," Shannon said at a recent debate. "Last week I got the endorsement of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. I am not an ideologue."

Man of surprises

Cuccinelli, whose genial manner helps soften the sharp edge of his opinions, has always performed better than his opponents expected, winning election to the Virginia Senate three times this decade in the most liberal part of the state. His legislative district overlaps with Shannon's in Fairfax and has overwhelmingly elected Democrats in recent statewide elections. All the same, it has come as a surprise to Republicans and Democrats that Cuccinelli is comfortably ahead in statewide polls.

Cuccinelli is a hero to supporters of a range of conservative causes, and he does not shy away from his views on gun rights, gay marriage, abortion, home-schooling (he has seven children, and wife Teiro home-schools four of them). At a debate with Shannon in Prince William County two weeks ago, Cuccinelli volunteers wore the "Don't Tread on Me" image seen at this year's "Tea Party" protests.


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