POLITICS

Ken Cuccinelli's challenge: Reunite Virginia's GOP

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- With conservatives pointing fingers at Republican moderates and moderates lamenting the conservative takeover of Virginia's GOP, Ken Cuccinelli has some fence-mending to do as he prepares to run for governor.

But, perhaps, he needs to look no farther than the Executive Mansion for guidance on how Republican conservatives can win elections and popularly govern.

Cuccinelli has aggressively pursued conservative causes in three years as attorney general and delighted his base on the party's right.

Conservatives took over the Virginia GOP's governing central committee this year, substituted a statewide convention where conservatives dominate in place of a primary, and forced out Cuccinelli's chief rival for the nomination, Bill Bolling.

Bolling didn't exit meekly, refusing to endorse Cuccinelli, saying he will remain an "independent voice" in 2013 politics and pointedly not precluding an independent gubernatorial run should the right money and backing present itself.

In the wake of a whipping in last month's presidential and U.S. Senate races in Virginia, the Republican Party has differences to settle over the next 11 months before Cuccinelli -- with only novelty opposition at next spring's convention -- faces presumptive Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, a master fundraiser for his party and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Is it even possible for Cuccinelli, who unabashedly used his office to advance his strong views against abortion rights, gay rights and human origins of global warming, to reunite his party? Can someone so proud of his conservative activism win back the women and minority voters who helped make Barack Obama the first Democrat to carry Virginia in consecutive presidential races since Franklin D. Roosevelt?

Democrats believe Cuccinelli affords them best opportunity to elect a governor of the same party as the White House's occupant for the first time since Mills E. Godwin 40 years ago. The former Democratic governor ran -- and won -- as a Republican a year after President Richard Nixon's re-election.

"Democrats are going to clearly ... try to portray Ken Cuccinelli as an extreme, right-wing ideologue. As a Democrat, I would argue that he is. And, as a Democrat, I would argue that over the last year with some of the stuff that happened in the General Assembly ... they gave a lot of ammunition to our side," veteran political strategist Mo Elleithee said Thursday in a panel discussion at the 11th annual AP Day at the Capitol in Richmond.

He was talking about legislation requiring women to undergo pre-abortion ultrasound exams. It was also an allusion to Cuccinelli last summer forcing the State Board of Health to reverse its decision to exempt existing Virginia abortion clinics from new architectural standards required of hospitals.

Women's groups and others turned out by the thousands to protest the ultrasound bill last winter, culminating with the arrest of more than 30 demonstrators who staged a sit-in on the Capitol's south portico steps in March. The measure also subjected Republican legislators to withering ridicule in national news reports and by television comedy shows, including NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

"People do not like ideologues in statewide elections," Elleithee said.

Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said it's hard to see how anyone positioned so far to the right can prevail, particularly in populous, Democratic-leaning northern Virginia. Exit polling showed women and minorities last month swung decidedly toward Obama and, in the Senate race, Democrat Tim Kaine.

"Republicans can't win with just carrying white men. They need a larger share of the white female vote," Black said. "I think McAuliffe's going to ... have the money to define the issues of the campaign."

Republicans have read their own obituaries before, then won.

"In 1992, they wrote off Republicans -- I mean, we lost an incumbent president -- and George Allen was painted as an extremist. He won," national GOP strategist Christopher J. LaCivita, Cuccinelli's 2013 adviser, told Thursday's Associated Press gathering.

"Clinton gets re-elected in '96, and that was a pretty close race in Virginia, and they said the same thing. They tried to paint (Republican) Jim (Gilmore) as a right-wing extremist," he said. Gilmore won. "And the same thing was said about Bob McDonnell after 2008, going into 2009."

McDonnell, with a long socially conservative legislative record, was also attorney general. But he did not pursue a socially conservative agenda as strongly as Cuccinelli. McDonnell ran for governor amid the wreckage of even more convincing Democratic victories in 2008. Two months before the 2009 election, the Washington Post exposed a college thesis in which McDonnell wrote that working women and feminists undermine traditional families.

Yet McDonnell brushed it aside and defeated Democratic state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds by 16 percentage points with a simple message: "Bob's for Jobs." As governor, he has kept economic development a top priority and remains popular, with 53 percent approving of his performance in a Quinnipiac University poll last month.

"I'm as conservative as the day I took office (in the House of Delegates) 21 years ago, and I've governed as a fiscal and a social conservative. It's just a matter of where you put the emphasis and how you communicate issues," McDonnell told the AP in a Friday interview.

McDonnell also said he believes the magnitude of a rift in an often-quarrelsome Virginia GOP is overstated. He said Cuccinelli can -- and should -- unify the party by taking his mantle as the state's chief advocate for job development in a state attractive to business because of low taxes and a light regulatory climate.

Bob Lewis has covered Virginia government and politics for The Associated Press since 2000.

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