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)

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II on Wednesday condemned an anti-Semitic joke told by a Republican activist who spoke before him at a rally this week.

“I wasn’t there, but I heard about it that night, and, obviously, I think it was inappropriate and certainly unfortunate and something, if I’d heard it at the time, I’d have spoken to right there,” Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for Virginia governor, told reporters after a candidates’ forum in Richmond on Wednesday morning.

But the incident put a spotlight on a GOP organizer who has close ties to Cuccinelli and who has helped steer the state party to the right this year.

John Whitbeck, the chairman of Virginia’s 10th Congressional District Republican Committee, is one of a half-dozen district leaders who pushed for a nominating convention over a primary this year. The move all but assured that Cuccinelli would win the nomination over Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling because conservative activists are more likely to attend a convention.

Whitbeck was also among those who took the dais to formally nominate Cuccinelli at the May convention.

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)

At a rally Tuesday in Sterling, attended by Cuccinelli and conservative talk radio host Mark Levin, Whitbeck warmed up the crowd with a joke that made use of a stereotype about Jews. He described “the head of the Jewish faith” as presenting the pope with “the bill for the Last Supper.”

Democrats pounced on the chance to assail Cuccinelli for the company he keeps. Cuccinelli’s top strategist, Chris LaCivita, initially remarked, “I don’t even know who that guy is,” but he later said he did not mean to suggest that Cuccinelli and Whitbeck don’t know each other.

Cuccinelli, who is in a hard-fought race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe, was asked Wednesday if he knew about Whitbeck’s joke when he took the stage a few moments after it was delivered. He replied, “I didn’t know about it until last night.”

Whitbeck, a Leesburg lawyer, ran unsuccessfully in 2011 for the state House seat now held by Del. J. Randall Minchew (R-Loudoun). Until this week, Whitbeck was also seen as a leading candidate to run for state Sen. Mark R. Herring’s (D-Loudoun) seat if Herring is elected to succeed Cuccinelli as attorney general.

Asked about the joke at the Sterling event, Whitbeck said: “I heard it in church one day. The priest told it one day. I was at Mass. It was my daughter’s first day at Communion, I think. I thought, you know, I gotta do something, so I ran up there and told my story.”

Whitbeck has not responded to subsequent requests for comment on the reaction to his joke. He told the Loudoun Times-Mirror on Wednesday: “I did not tell an anti-Semitic joke. I told a joke I heard from a priest at a church service,” and then he said the controversy had been “wholly manufactured” by liberal groups.

Others defended Whitbeck and suggested that the joke was told in a moment of poor judgment.

“I’ve always known John to be a good-natured individual that people appreciate and who is a hard worker,” said Beau Correll, a member of the 10th Congressional District Republican Committee.

Not just Democrats and liberal groups have been critical of the remarks.

“It is not funny,” said Bobbie Kilberg, the president and chief executive of the Northern Virginia Technology Council and an active player in state Republican politics. Kilberg is Jewish. “It is totally inappropriate, and it is offensive. I conveyed that to him in an e-mail last night. I have not heard back.”

Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, also took Whitbeck to task.

“Clearly, it was inappropriate and an offensive remark,” said Halber, whose nonpartisan group represents more than 100 Jewish organizations in the Washington area. “It really has no place in civil discourse. It shows really bad judgment. I don’t understand why Mr. Whitbeck thought that picking fun or making stereotypes about a certain group would be a good opening act when [someone’s] running for governor.”

But Halber also praised the Cuccinellli campaign’s quick response.

“We are very appreciative that Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign denounced it right away after it happened,” Halber said. “That’s a good thing.”

The move to hold a convention that Whitbeck was a part of was seen as a turning point for the state Republican Party, a key victory in an internal battle between conservatives and moderates for control of the party.

But the switch to a convention also led to the selection of Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson as the nominee for lieutenant governor. Jackson, who won an upset victory over six other candidates at the convention in Richmond, is popular with grass-roots conservatives but has a history of controversial comments about gays and abortion, among other subjects.

Fredrick Kunkle and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.