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Bolling, Cuccinelli square off in first test of the 2013 Virginia governor’s race

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RICHMOND — A little-known vote this week among a mere 81 people will help determine the next governor of Virginia.

The state GOP’s governing board will reconsider Friday whether to hold a primary or a convention next year to nominate its candidate in what is shaping up to be a contentious and expensive race.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, a tea party favorite whose causes have prompted national headlines, is widely expected to win the nomination if the Republicans hold a convention. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, running as a pragmatic problem-solver in the mold of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, is fighting to hold a primary.

In Virginia, the parties choose how to nominate their candidates. A primary is open to all voters — with more than 100,000 casting ballots in recent years — while a convention is attended by a few thousand die-hard activists elected by the party at the local level for the day-long event. Republicans have alternated between primaries and conventions in recent years; Democrats have usually opted for a primary.

In the final days before Friday’s GOP board meeting, both sides are trying to line up votes, with Cuccinelli and Bolling making calls personally. The decision rests with a handful of undecided board members, but Cuccinelli and those who favor a convention are expected to prevail. Bolling has hired high-profile elections lawyer Jan Baran to look at legal options in case that happens.

Others in the party just want supporters to return their attention to the critical races of 2012 for president and U.S. Senate. Virginia’s choices could be crucial in determining who resides in the White House and which party controls the Senate.

Former congressman Tom Davis, a moderate Republican from Northern Virginia, has long preferred primaries to make the party more inclusive, but he said he is not endorsing a candidate in the race. Instead, he is holding events for both men.

“I hope it will resolve itself,’’ he said of the nominating process.

That’s proving to be difficult, though.

The Republican State Central Committee, after lobbying by Bolling, voted overwhelmingly in October to hold a primary to select nominees for all statewide races in 2013. Six candidates for Virginia’s three statewide elected positions have started fundraising and built strategy based on the assumption that they would compete in a primary. Courts have previously not allowed a change after that has happened.

But Cuccinelli backers succeeded in winning a number of new spots on the state board over the past couple of months, prompting the issue to be reconsidered. Some of the winners — conservative party activists and supporters of presidential candidate Ron Paul, a congressman from Texas — ran on a platform of holding a convention next year.

“I believe it is improper and unfair to candidates and Republican voters to change the rules in the middle of the game,” Bolling wrote in a recent letter to the committee.

On Friday, Bolling launched an online petition soliciting support for a primary.

Cuccinelli said after he got into the race in December that he would not try to change the nomination method, and he says he didn’t initiate the current effort.

“Ken is prepared to run, and win, in whatever method of nomination the State Central Committee decides is best for the party,’’ Cuccinelli political director Noah Wall said.

Most political observers believe a convention favors the attorney general because it would be likely to be dominated by conservative members of the party who largely back Cuccinelli.

Supporters of primaries say conventions create financial burdens for the party, which spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on them, and problems for the eventual nominee, who may need to campaign on conservative issues but later must appeal to Demo­crats and independents to win the general election.

Linwood Cobb, a longtime Republican activist who leads the GOP’s Seventh District Congressional Committee in central Virginia, said conventions also prevent military voters stationed elsewhere to participate.

Supporters of conventions fear that Democrats and independents would cross party lines and vote in primaries because Virginia has no party registration.

Paul’s state director, Chris Stearns, who was elected to the board last month, said primaries cost the state money. “We, as Republicans, we’d look look like hypocrites if we cost taxpayers money,’’ he said.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed Cuccinelli leading Bolling among Republican voters, 51 percent to 15 percent. A Washington Post survey released last month found the attorney general with much stronger name recognition than Bolling.

Cuccinelli has garnered national attention for suing the federal government over health-care reform, advising colleges that they could not adopt policies protecting gay people and subpoenaing climate change documents from the University of Virginia.

But Bolling, whose role presiding over the evenly divided state Senate was elevated in importance this year, may get a boost before the vote next week. U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is expected to endorse him as soon as next week, according to several people with knowledge of the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to discuss the matter publicly.

Bolling stepped aside in 2009 to allow McDonnell to run unopposed in the GOP nomination. (That year, McDonnell, Bolling and Cuccinelli were selected as nominees at a convention.) In return, McDonnell said he would support Bolling in 2013.

McDonnell has stated his support for a primary but has not worked behind the scenes to steer the party toward one. “We should stay with rules that are set,” he said last week. “You set the rules . . . and stick with them. Changing the rules midstream is just not the right thing to do.”

Democrats will decide in September what their nomination process will be.

Terry McAuliffe, a businessman and former Democratic National Committee chairman, plans a second run for governor, but he has not officially announced his intentions and says he will not do so until after the November elections.

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