Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, left, listens as conservative commentator Mark Levin speaks at a Constitution Day rally in Sterling, Va., on Sept. 17. (Eva Russo for The Washington Post)

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli II fired up a crowd of several hundred Republicans and tea party members Tuesday with rousing talk about keeping Washington at bay and fighting to maintain the commonwealth’s tradition of limited government.

But the Virginia attorney general was also forced to distance himself from a local Republican official who spoke ahead of the candidate and told an anti-Semitic joke; a video of the joke went viral later in the day.

Cuccinelli was joined by nationally syndicated talk show host Mark Levin at a Constitution Day rally in Sterling and spoke of his efforts to restrain government, including legal challenges to President Obama’s health-care overhaul and to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Get government out of the way, and you will watch the American economy explode,” Cuccinelli said, invoking the names of Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other Virginia-born patriots. “Those principles that they built this nation on are eternal and universal. They apply everywhere and all the time. They apply as much in 2013 as they did in 1776.”

Cuccinelli painted his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, as a creature of inside-the-Beltway politics who would exacerbate partisan tensions in Virginia. The loudest applause came when he spoke of his support of school choice.

John Whitbeck, 10th Congressional District GOP chairman, raised eyebrows at a rally where gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli spoke. (Video courtesy of the Democratic Party of Virginia)

“A child in Virginia — a child in Petersburg — trapped in the boundaries of a failing school, can’t pursue happiness if they can’t get a decent education. And right now, their own government blocks them from alternatives that would allow them to pursue happiness,” Cuccinelli said. “We don’t promise outcomes; we promise opportunity. And this is a classic example where we can expand and make real the promise of opportunity of government policy.”

People brought yellow lawn chairs with the motto “Don’t tread on me,” and at least one tricorner hat was visible in the crowd. John Whitbeck, 10th Congressional District Republican Committee chairman, raised eyebrows when he kicked off the festivities by telling a joke in which the head of the Jewish religion presented the pope with a long, elaborate document that the Jewish leader said was a bill for the last supper.

The crowd laughed uproariously. But American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal political action committee, tweeted about Whitbeck’s “anti-Semitic” opener and the state Democratic Party later circulated a video of the joke.

Cuccinelli was not yet on stage at the time the joke was told, and his campaign later distanced him from the remarks.

“I don’t even know who the guy is,” Cuccinelli campaign strategist Chris La Civita said, referring to Whitbeck. “It’s wholly inappropriate and not connected to the campaign. And it’s not reflective of Ken Cuccinelli.”

While Cuccinelli was working his base, McAuliffe was in Virginia Beach collecting an endorsement from the city’s mayor, Will Sessoms, who is a Republican. McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin said the two events offered a snapshot of the contrasts between the candidates, and he accused Cuccinelli of fully embracing the tea party movement and only pretending to focus on mainstream Virginians.

The state Democratic Party highlighted remarks by Levin that party officials said demonstrated his extremism, such as accusing Obama of being a Muslim Brotherhood “sympathizer.”

Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), in an interview before the rally, said the gathering was proof that Cuccinelli and his backers were out of step with a Virginia that had evolved into a swing state. Marsden said the definition of liberty promoted by Cuccinelli and tea party members leaves out homosexuals, women seeking abortions and others. And he criticized Cuccinelli for focusing on his core supporters instead of trying to broaden his message and being more inclusive.

“The degree of fear and paranoia and misinformation that comes out of the tea party, it’s just chilling,” Marsden said.

Several people at the rally celebrated having a conservative activist at the top of the GOP’s statewide ticket.

“We have someone who’s not afraid to tell the federal government, ‘Get out — this is ours,’ ” Loudoun County Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) said during her introduction of Cuccinelli. “One thing I told a group of tea party folks the other night when I was at a meeting, I said, ‘Ken Cuccinelli was tea party before there was a tea party.’ ”

Cuccinelli urged the crowd of nearly 250 people to help him overcome a funding deficit by knocking on doors and working the phones. He highlighted his victory over the EPA ’s attempt to regulate storm-water runoff. He said the move saved Northern Virginia taxpayers millions of dollars. He also criticized the agency’s forthcoming regulations on carbon emissions, saying they could cripple the economy in Virginia’s coal fields.

He called the Affordable Care Act an example of federal overreach that has caused companies to hire only part-time employees, hindering economic growth. He attacked McAuliffe for saying he would not sign a budget unless the legislature agreed to expand Medicaid. He introduced Levin as his “favorite media mogul.” Cameras and smart phones were raised to take pictures as Levin took the podium.

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to watch Terry McAuliffe be governor of Virginia,” Levin said. “Now, if he wants to run for governor of Maryland, I understand it,” Levin said. “But this is Virginia, and we have to draw a line somewhere in Virginia, and we’re drawing it right here.”

Staff writer Marc Fisher contributed to the report.