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Cuccinelli's run for governor of Va. tests core elements of GOP makeover


WAKEFIELD, Va. — Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, is no Mitt Romney – and that’s one trait that his most ardently conservative supporters appreciate.

"The thing I think that's cool about Ken is you know where he comes from, he's going to be direct and honest, and he's not going to tell you what you want to hear — he's going to tell you what he honestly believes," said Connie Meyer, one of the hundreds of Cuccinelli supporters who attended last week's "Shad Planking" — a rite of political passage in rural Virginia featuring cold beer and smoked fish.

"I might not agree on everything with him, but I know who he is," Meyer said.

Cuccinelli, the Old Dominion's attorney general and an outspoken conservative, will have to hope that independent and moderate voters agree with Meyer if he's to have any hope of beating his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, in November.

The high-profile campaign will test whether a dyed-in-the-wool conservative like Cuccinelli can remain palatable in a state like Virginia, which has undergone steady changes that have transformed it from a cornerstone of the Old South into a 21st Century swing state.

Patrick Kane / AP

Shad fish nailed to planks slow-cook over coals during the 65th Annual Shad Planking on Wednesday, April 17, 2013 at the Wakefield Sportsmen's Club in Wakefield, Va.

"I think I have a lot broader record than what is widely known," Cuccinelli told NBC News following his speech at the 2013 Shad Planking. "I talk to groups, one at a time. I've put a lot of miles on cars, talking to Virginians in their communities and doing it pretty regularly."

A former state senator from suburban Washington, D.C., Cuccinelli distinguished himself on the state and national level as a reliable conservative. He led the charge against President Barack Obama's health care law in court, and broke more recently with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican he's hoping to succeed, over a landmark transportation law that raised some taxes.

Many of Cuccinelli’s supporters at last Wednesday’s event said his conservative credentials are beyond reproach, and suggested that Cuccinelli would not moderate his views in pursuit of higher office.

But the gubernatorial nominee's ideology could be his undoing. Democrats have become more reliable contenders in statewide races in Virginia; Obama won it in both of his presidential campaigns, and the state boasts two Democrats in the U.S. Senate. The growth of D.C.'s suburbs in northern Virginia — fueled in part by government spending — has transformed Virginia into a more prosperous and diverse state.

Cuccinelli's campaign will test conservatives' hypothesis that a forceful conservative message, if articulated well, is the path to GOP resurgence (rather than a gradual moderation of the party).  And the outcome of his campaign could have reverberations throughout the Republican Party nationally, as the party establishment works to broaden its appeal  by adopting a more inviting tone toward those who disagree with it.

Even supporters worry that Cuccinelli is too forthright about his views.

"I don't support gay rights, and I'm against abortion — but he has to tone down his rhetoric," said Ray Hughes, a retired food production executive who resides in Norfolk.

Patrick Kane / AP

Ken Cuccinelli speaks during the 65th Annual Shad Planking Wednesday, April 17, 2013 at the Wakefield Sportsmen's Club in Wakefield, Va.

Indeed, much of Cuccinelli's speech before several hundred attendees of this year's Shad Planking focused not on social issues, but bread-and-butter issues like job and the economy. He sought to humanize himself by talking about his service work earlier in his life, and his work as attorney general to free some wrongfully convicted inmates. (His campaign has been eager to publicize instances of the latter.)

And McAuliffe found himself as much of a target of the attorney general's comments at the Shad Planking as anything else. Cuccinelli repeatedly made reference to Greentech Automotive, the environmentally-friendly auto company that McAuliffe helped found (and from which he subsequently resigned). Cuccinelli reeled off jokes about Greentech, referencing the fact that its production was based in Mississippi, not Virginia.

Those jokes sat well with the crowd at Shad Planking, a group that tended older, whiter and Republican. (In the past, Democrats were more of a presence at this fundraiser for the Wakefield Ruritan Club; this year, the event was dominated with tents for GOP candidates, and groups like Americans for Prosperity and Heritage Action.)

But the voters at this year's Shad Planking aren't the ones Cuccinelli will have to convince. The Virginia election, held in Washington's backyard during an off-year, and combined with the relative brashness of McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, have all the makings of a "squeaker," said Don Woodsmall, a former attorney who's supporting the attorney general.

"I don't think you'll find two candidates more extreme — their style, their ideology, everything about them," he said. "I think Cuccinelli's going to be swinging for the fences. It always has the potential to backfire, but I think you win people over to your principles."

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