Bill Bolling, the state senator from the Richmond suburbs who is running for lieutenant governor, had the friendly group of Republicans nodding at a Winchester home as he pushed his candidacy.
It was a disciplined political speech for the partisan crowd, hitting bedrock conservative points: low taxes, limited government, opposition to abortion. "We don't, as a state, need to raise any more taxes on the backs of businesses and families," the GOP candidate told the group of about 20 at the Oct. 11 event as they sipped on cocktails and glasses of wine.
He concluded by saying he had answers to some of Virginia's vexing problems: "The state must fund public safety . . . and higher education and a transportation system for the 21st century," he said, the crowd still nodding.
To Bolling, that message can appeal to the conservative, anti-tax core of his party and to more centrist voters concerned about state services. He proposes spending more than $1 billion more a year for public safety, higher education and transportation, and says tax increases would not be necessary to fund them.
But to his political opponents, including Democratic candidate Leslie L. Byrne, Bolling's anti-tax, pro-investment campaign message is hollow and does not add up. Byrne has said that Bolling is long on rhetoric, short on record and that his major policy initiatives in the Senate had little impact on Virginians.
Politicians have long viewed Bolling, 48, as a dedicated member of the conservative, anti-tax movement in the generally moderate state Senate. He founded a political action committee in 2001 that supports conservative candidates. He was one of 12 senators who opposed last year's tax and spending increases.
Friends and associates, however, also have said that Bolling is a pragmatic politician who has long understood how to craft an agenda that could help further his political career.
"He's always been a political animal who understood just what he had to do to either raise money or get the right support," said R.J. "Buddy" Klotz, who served with Bolling on the Hanover County Board in the early 1990s.
Bolling, the son of a West Virginia coal miner, began his foray into politics at 15 by volunteering for the 1972 Republican governor's campaign, "where I learned to love the smell of bumper stickers in the fall," he said. He said he got involved because the Democrat, John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV, campaigned to end surface mining, which could have put his father, also a Democrat, out of a job.
Fifteen years later -- after completing a political science major and chairing a mock Congress in college -- the lure of politics was still strong. He became a party activist in Hanover County and ran for supervisor in 1991.
"I think I always knew he wanted to run for office. I just didn't know if he'd get the chance," said Jean Ann, his wife of 27 years, who travels on nearly every swing Bolling has made across the state. "But from the first days that I knew him, I knew that he was born to be in politics."
Always ambitious, and encouraged by then-Gov. George Allen's 1995 call for "more Republicans," Bolling decided after one term that he was ready to run for the local Senate seat, held by a Democrat for five terms. He out-raised his opponent, Elmo G. Cross Jr., and won by several hundred votes. He has not been challenged since.
In June, Bolling defeated Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton in a GOP primary for the lieutenant governor's nomination.
The state's No. 2 elected position often has been a launching pad for gubernatorial campaigns. Asked whether he wants to be governor, Bolling said: "Yes. Anyone who says that they are running for lieutenant governor but they don't want to be governor is lying."
Bolling cites President Ronald Reagan and George Allen, now a U.S. senator, as his political heroes: "Reagan understood and Allen understands the importance of keeping government small and focused. Those are things I want to do well."
He also talks up his Senate record on "mainstream" issues, such as sponsoring then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III's health insurance legislation in 2000 to enhance the state's health insurance program for children, and his fight against the importation of trash from other states -- an issue that affected his district north and east of Richmond, home to several landfills.
The laws restricting interstate trash shipment were later ruled unconstitutional.
"It is not enough to pass a bill that isn't going to work or isn't funded and say you did something," Byrne said.
Byrne also has raised questions concerning Bolling's former employment at the Reciprocal Group, a Richmond area insurance company that collapsed after a fraud investigation involving high-ranking executives.
"It's a cheap shot," Bolling said. He worked at Reciprocal for 20 years and was a second vice president. He never was named in any lawsuits, and his campaign has released letters from the U.S. attorney's office and the state commission of insurance stating that he played no role in the case.
Although the lieutenant governor's job consists largely of presiding over the state Senate, Bolling has an ambitious platform that includes the extra $1 billion in spending on services.
He said he believes that Virginia's robust economy will provide ample revenue and that no tax increases will be required.
Many Republicans in the Senate have said the economy cannot be counted on to grow at its current pace and that the costs of maintaining schools, prisons and health services will increase by billions of dollars in the next two years.
Byrne has said that Bolling's policy initiatives are disingenuous because he is partly basing his programs on a budget that was made solvent by the very tax package he opposed last year.
"You can't say you're going to spend all this money without saying how you're going to raise money," she said. "People see through it."
Bolling insists, as he tried to explain to the group in Winchester this month, that his approach is one of balance. "Sometimes people think that conservatives don't believe there's a proper role for government," he said. "There is a role. . . . I just want to keep it focused on core responsibilities."