RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Ken Cuccinelli's campaign for governor of Virginia has always been a test of whether a deeply conservative Republican could win in a swing-voting state.
For months, the attorney general — known outside his state for mounting the first-in-the-nation legal challenge to President Barack Obama's health care law — was locked in a competitive race with Democrat Terry McAuliffe as both candidates sought to court an ideologically diverse crop of voters, moderates and women among them.
Now with polls showing the Republican trailing with time running out and money drying up, Cuccinelli has started emphasizing his far-right credentials in hopes of firing up enough tea partyers and social conservatives to engineer a come-from-behind victory in what's expected to be a low-participation election Nov. 5.
"I am indisputably the strongest liberty candidate ever elected statewide in Virginia in my lifetime. It's not even close," Cuccinelli said Saturday. "This is, at least in part, a referendum on Obamacare."
At a time when the national GOP is divided between its ideological and pragmatic wings, a Cuccinelli victory here could validate tea party power not just in the Republican Party but within the broader electorate. A defeat would show the insurgent group's limits and would give fodder to the GOP establishment arguing that nominating ideological purists is not a pathway to success.
The outcome also could give clues about which way the Republican Party moves heading into 2014's congressional elections when control of Congress will be up for grabs.
With 10 days to go in Virginia, surveys show McAuliffe ahead, and Democrats are trying to grow that lead by pouring a ton of money into the race. Last week, McAuliffe and Democratic allies outspent Cuccinelli by a 10-to-1 margin in television advertising in the state and are on track to spend almost $14 million on ads in this campaign.
Much of that sizable amount has been spent on negative ads painting Cuccinelli as too extreme for the state. Democrats also have worked hard to link Cuccinelli to the donor scandal engulfing incumbent Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and the shutdown in Washington.
All that has left Cuccinelli politically wounded.
With turnaround options dwindling, Cuccinelli has little choice but to focus on energizing his core supporters.
In the homestretch, he's primarily campaigning in conservative areas of the state on its southern and western borders. He has all but stopped running television ads in Democrat- and moderate-heavy northern Virginia, in the costly Washington media market. And he's appearing alongside tea party heroes: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul will campaign with him Monday at the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University in Lynchburg and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal arrives a day later.
Despite his staunchly conservative positions, Republicans have not unified behind him. A Quinnipiac University poll found 81 percent of likely Republican voters backed him, while 11 percent are backing the libertarian candidate, Robert Sarvis. Another 2 percent of Republicans say they are supporting McAuliffe.
So, the Republican is doing what has worked in his past elections: energizing his main backers on the right by promoting his deeply conservative beliefs.
With this strategy, he won his 2007 state Senate seat by just 92 votes, and two years later came from 16 points percentage points down to win his race for attorney general.
The difference: those races were for lower offices, and they didn't come with millions of negative ads from Democrats arguing that his conservative record puts him out of step with the state's diverse voters.
Cuccinelli, 45, is an engineer by training who has put his conservative beliefs at the center of his political career, endearing himself to the party's right flank.
As the state's attorney general, Cuccinelli took on Obama's health care law, and he has pressed policies in line with his anti-abortion rights view, allowing Democrats to accuse him of trying to limit women's access to birth control. He also backed an attempt to deny citizenship to children born to immigrants living in the United States illegally. And he sought to give employers the right to fire workers if they heard Spanish spoken in the workplace.
He also staunchly supports gun rights, defending that position during Thursday night's debate held just an eight-minute walk from one of the sites of 2007's massacre on Virginia Tech's campus that killed 33.
Perhaps Cuccinelli's last, best opportunity to change the direction of the race came that night. He made no big mistakes. But he also didn't land a knockout punch against McAuliffe.
Arguably Cuccinelli's best moment of the night came when he called his opponent a policy lightweight who speaks only in platitudes, saying that McAuliffe is "all puppy, no plan."
One day later, the Republican held a highly unusual conference call with reporters in which he outlined every possible appearance of impropriety by McAuliffe in a last-ditch effort to taint the Democrat.
McAuliffe's campaign dismissed the criticism as the tactics of a losing campaign.
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