Columnist

Until three months ago, when he dropped out of the race to become the Republican nominee for governor, Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling had to keep mum about his unhappiness with the GOP’s shift to the right.

He couldn’t say, as he did in an interview here Tuesday, that he thought the Republicans had become so extreme that they were alienating voters and blocking the commonwealth’s progress.

He couldn’t say, as he did Tuesday, that “not every government program is bad, and not everyone who receives a public benefit is a freeloader.”

Or that it’s “irresponsible” to take “absolute positions” never to raise taxes.

Or that last year’s Republican-backed fetal ultrasound bill was “an absolutely unmitigated disaster.”

To say all that previously would have meant giving up any chance of beating Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a tea party favorite, for the nomination.

As it happened, Cuccinelli and his allies in the party bureaucracy still managed to outmaneuver Bolling and his then-supporter, Gov. Bob McDonnell. The attorney general’s forces arranged for the GOP to pick its nominee not in a primary but at a convention, sure to be dominated by pro-Cuccinelli activists.

It’s not what Bolling wanted. But it left him in a unique position, rare among politicians, to say what he really thinks.

“Frankly, it has been a rather liberating experience,” Bolling said. “I have enjoyed the last three months . . . more than I did the prior several years.”

Some Republicans dismiss Bolling’s comments as the gripes of a sore loser, but they can’t ignore his stature in the party. He was elected twice on the GOP ticket to Virginia’s No. 2 executive position. As presiding officer of the Senate, he gives the balance of power to the Republicans in the 20-20 chamber.

“It’s just a challenging time for the Republican Party when a conservative, mainstream guy like me doesn’t really feel comfortable with his party,” Bolling said. “The party has moved too far, and it’s become too extreme and too ideological.”

Isn’t Bolling effectively conceding that in the past he hid his concerns about the GOP from voters? Well, yes.

“The unfortunate truth is when you are a political partisan, you are always worrying in the back of your mind about how your comments and actions are going to be perceived,” he said.

Bolling hasn’t yet given up hope of winning the governorship. He’s going to decide by March 14 whether to run as an independent. He would position himself as a moderate conservative between the right-wing attorney general and the likely Democratic nominee, Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman.

Bolling didn’t tell me which way he was leaning. He frankly acknowledged the challenges. It would require between $10 million and $15 million to run a credible race, he thinks, and donors are typically wary of independent bids.

Polls have been showing Bolling with between 12 percent and 15 percent in a three-way contest. He thinks that would jump to 20 percent to 25 percent when he entered the race, but he’d probably need at least 35 percent to win.

Still, Bolling continued, there’s no question that the 2013 Virginia governor’s race offers a rare opening for an independent. The candidates of both major parties have major shortcomings. Cuccinelli has a well-documented record as a radical on a range of issues. McAuliffe is a latecomer to Virginia politics and has never held elective office.

In a sign of how committed he’s been about running, the once-portly Bolling has shed 45 pounds in the past year. “I’m getting into fighting weight,” he said.

Bolling directed most of his criticisms at fellow Republicans, given the need to explain a possible break with them. But he included Democrats in a broad assault on excessive partisanship at both the state and national level.

“It seems these days that compromise is a four-letter world in many people’s eyes. They view it as a sign of weakness, but in reality it is the essence of a workable democracy,” Bolling said.

Regardless of whether he enters the race, I hope Bolling keeps speaking out. His candor, while liberating for him, is refreshing for the rest of us.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.
com/mccartney.