Ken Cuccinelli II gives a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md., on March 14, 2013. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

In the first television ad of the Virginia governor’s race, Republican Ken Cuccinelli II’s wife peers into the camera and describes her husband as “standing up for the vulnerable and those in need.”

Cuccinelli, she says while soft music plays in the background, has “worked the night shift at a homeless shelter.”

On his campaign’s Web site, Cuccinelli touts his opposition to human trafficking, his sensitivity to sexual-assault victims and his quest to improve Virginia’s mental-health system.

As he campaigns against Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a central question looming over the race to succeed Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) is whether Cuccinelli can appeal to voters with a moderate message while not alienating his core conservative base.

His success — or failure — could have far-reaching ramifications, occurring as the Republican National Committee has called on the party to change its tone and be more inclusive.

Over the past decade, while ascending in Virginia politics, Cuccinelli has established himself as a combative icon of the tea party movement.

From describing sex between homosexuals as “wrong” to branding President Obama’s team as “the biggest set of lawbreakers in America,” Cuccinelli has endeared himself to conservatives while inflaming Democrats.

As Virginia’s attorney general, his targets have included abortion-clinic rules, climate scientists and the Environmental Protection Agency, which he has derided as the “agency of mass destruction.”

Now, Cuccinelli is focusing on the economy and highlights his advocacy on behalf of such groups as wrongfully convicted prison inmates.

Last month, Cuccinelli pledged that if elected, he would not seek to undo the $1.4 billion-a-year transportation plan the General Assembly approved. He had previously decried it as a “massive tax increase.”

“The real test of this campaign is whether Ken Cuccinelli can moderate himself in ways beyond rhetoric,” said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. “Is there a new Cuccinelli? Or is it a new rhetorical Cuccinelli?”

The essential centrists

For generations a Republican stronghold in presidential elections, Virginia went Democratic for the first time in 44 years when voters supported Obama in 2008 and 2012, a projection of the demographic changes that seemed to have made the state more moderate.

At the same time, in each of Virginia’s past nine gubernatorial elections, voters have chosen the party that is not in the White House, suggesting that this may be Republicans’ year to retain the state capitol.

Yet Cuccinelli’s chances of succeeding McDonnell in what polls have shown is a tight race may depend on whether he can draw centrist voters in Northern Virginia, a segment not necessarily tolerant of conservative views on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.

While Cuccinelli’s campaign has portrayed him as transparent, as it demanded that McAuliffe release his full tax returns, the Republican now finds himself answering questions about his initial failure to report stock holdings in Star Scientific and gifts from its chief executive.

And even as Cuccinelli has trained his focus on the economy, reminders of his social conservatism have cropped up, as when he challenged a court ruling finding the state’s anti-sodomy law unconstitutional. Although Cuccinelli said he hoped to revive the law because of a case involving an alleged pedophile, his opponents used his effort to portray the attorney general as anti-gay.

“It appears to be the tale of two Cuccinellis,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic consultant and a veteran of Virginia statewide campaigns. “He certainly knows that to win a statewide general election, you cannot be seen as a social ideologue. He just can’t help himself.”

Chris LaCivita, a Cuccinelli campaign consultant, said the candidate is addressing issues that are relevant to a gubernatorial race and brushed aside the suggestion that the attorney general needs to recast himself.

“Ken doesn’t change who he is philosophically, but at the same time, when you run for governor, your issue portfolio greatly expands, and that expansion is what this campaign is about,” LaCivita said, referring to Cuccinelli’s focus on the economy.

“Some people say that’s moving to the middle, and they can characterize it any way they choose,” he said. “We characterize it as a winning strategy. We don’t apologize or change positions. You don’t run away from who you are.”

In March, the RNC issued a report urging party members to “change our tone,” embrace “comprehensive immigration reform,” and reach out to younger voters and minorities, including gays, women, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians.

“When it comes to social issues,” the RNC advised in its report, “the party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming.”

To many Republicans, Cuccinelli’s candidacy in what is now the country’s only competitive statewide race of 2013 is a test of the RNC’s new message, and it could have implications for how the GOP campaigns across the country.

“You can be a social conservative — you can be hard core, but how you talk about it matters,” said Michael Steele, the RNC’s former chairman. “If voters feel alienated or threatened by your views, that will be a problem.”

Referring to Cuccinelli, Steele said: “Just because he’s conservative doesn’t mean he’s out of the mainstream. I’m not going to allow anyone to paint Ken as outside the party.”

Not all Republicans agree on that point.

Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman and now an MSNBC host, cited Cuccinelli’s statements on Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security to describe him as having “said more things that will offend the voters that swing elections than is humanly possible.”

Cuccinelli, Scarborough said during a February broadcast, is “certifiable when it comes to mainstream political thought.”

‘Too extreme’?

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who considered running against Cuccinelli for the GOP nomination, said the attorney general’s challenge is that “large numbers” of voters “view him as too extreme.”

Despite Cuccinelli’s recent focus on the economy, Bolling said, “I’ve seen little indication that he wants to redefine himself. Most of what he has done in the early months seems to indicate he intends to double down on the ideologies of the most conservative wing of the Republican Party.”

At the same time, Cuccinelli risks alienating his core supporters if he appears to abandon positions that endear him to them. “We can’t antagonize those who do vote for us,” said Edward J. Rollins, a Republican political strategist whose clients have included Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “If he makes any drastic change in his views, he won’t invigorate the base that he needs to win.”

McDonnell faced a similar challenge when he ran for governor in 2009. An acolyte of televangelist Pat Robertson’s, McDonnell sought to steer clear of social issues during the campaign and focused on the economy with his “Bob’s for Jobs” mantra.

“He was known to insiders as a Pat Robertson conservative, but he didn’t spend his time pursuing those issues,” Kidd said. “The problem for Cuccinelli is that the shining objects get the attention, and the shining objects are abortion, gay marriage, gay rights and immigration. I don’t think he has the ideological interest to avoid making those things central to what his campaign is about.”

David Lampo, a leader of Virginia’s Log Cabin Republicans, an organization representing gay men and lesbians, said the group supported McDonnell despite his not having a “particularly good record on gay rights.”

Why? Lampo said it was because McDonnell made a “strong pitch” about nondiscrimination policies for state workers. Lampo said his group views Cuccinelli as “a disaster waiting to happen and exactly the wrong face for the Republican Party when it’s trying to change its image.”

As attorney general, Cuccinelli, who opposes abortion, inflamed Democrats when he told state health officials that they could not exempt existing abortion clinics from rules requiring them to operate more like hospitals. He prompted criticism when he informed state universities that sexual preference could not be a basis for banning discrimination. He questioned the legitimacy of a former University of Virginia professor who researches global warming.

Yet, on his campaign’s Web site, Cuccinelli is not nearly so pugnacious. Under the heading “About Ken,” his campaign touts him as having “become best known for his efforts to preserve liberty and defend the U.S. Constitution.”

At a fundraiser in March, the candidate reminded the audience that he was “the same Ken Cuccinelli” even as he was “concentrating on economic issues,” recalled Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), a conservative who supports Cuccinelli.

“If he hadn’t said that, he may have left people with, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Marshall said.

“You can be quiet at times, but you have to be convincingly quiet that you’re not switching positions,” Marshall said. “If he does anything to compromise himself, he’s sunk. It’s a tight rope he has to walk.”