By Rosalind S. Helderman Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2010; 9:48 PM
RICHMOND - Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II emerged as a clear favorite of the first Virginia Tea Party Convention Saturday, drawing lusty cheers as he told more than 2,000 activists that the tea party would not exist if not for Republican Party failures.
Cuccinelli (R), whose supporters waved the yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flag as they helped nominate him for office at last year's state Republican convention, drew a sustained ovation when he took the microphone at an afternoon panel on federalism.
"I don't think there'd be a tea party if the Republican Party had been a party of limited government in the first part of this decade," Cuccinelli said to cheers.
Saturday's speakers included Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), former senator George Allen (R-Va.), Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), radio talk-show host Herman Cain and former CNN anchor Lou Dobbs. But every mention of the outspoken attorney general drew loud applause, and some activists handed out "Cuccinelli for President" lapel stickers.
Since taking office in January, Cuccinelli has sued the Environmental Protection Agency over regulations designed to prevent global warming and has subpoenaed the University of Virginia in search of documents that he hopes would show that a leading climate scientist is a fraud.
Most notably for the crowd, Cuccinelli filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the federal health-care law. His suit is separate from one filed jointly by 20 states in Florida and will be heard first - a federal judge will hear oral arguments on Oct. 18.
"Quite frankly, if they could switch him today with the governor, they would," said Robert Jeffery, an activist from Reston. "In a heartbeat."
Cuccinelli's continued popularity with conservatives could be complicating to the agenda of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who addressed the convention Friday, and McDonnell's chosen successor, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R).
Cuccinelli has said he has no plans to challenge Bolling for the Republican nomination in 2013, but his supporters might push for him to run.
Convention organizers also announced that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) won a 2012 presidential straw poll, which they billed as the first of its kind to include the votes only of those who identify with the tea party movement.
Organizers said that 1,560 people voted in the poll and that Christie won with 14 percent of the vote. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin followed closely behind with 13.5 percent. Neither Cuccinelli nor McDonnell was included among 15 options presented to straw-poll voters.
Convention-goers said over and over again that they were hoping to elect Republicans to Congress in November to counter President Obama's agenda. Santorum called the coming months "our Pearl Harbor," and challenged the activists to sacrifice for the movement. Paul said the country is experiencing an "intellectual revolution."
But at times it was clear the tea party and GOP are uneasy partners.
At a morning forum for the 7th Congressional District candidates now held by the House's second leading Republican, Rep. Eric Cantor, a crowd of several hundred cheered independent candidate Floyd Bayne as he called for the elimination of the federal Department of Education and the replacement of the federal income tax with a national sales tax, and argued that the government should have allowed General Motors to fail.
Cantor did not attend.
Cuccinelli also urged convention-goers not to remain independent.
"It formed outside the parties," he said. "It needs to stay outside the party."
Afterward, Allen, who served in the Senate from 2001 to 2007 and is weighing a run against Sen. James Webb (D) in 2012, countered that Democrats' spending habits spurred the movement.
"What has stirred this?" he said. "It's what has happened in the last year."