Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia's conservative activist attorney general, formally became the Republican gubernatorial nominee by acclamation Saturday in a noisy voice vote at a statewide GOP convention dominated for the first time by the tea party activists who adore him.
Cuccinelli used his nomination speech to tack to the political center as he eyes the November election, minimizing his support for restrictions on abortion and opposition to gay rights, as he attacked Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, a protege of his party's Clinton family.
The convention also faced the task of choosing from among seven candidates for lieutenant governor, and from Del. Rob Bell of Albemarle County and state Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg for attorney general. Obenshain is the son of Republican hero Richard Obenshain who won the party's U.S. Senate nomination 35 years ago but died in a plane crash.
In accepting the gubernatorial nomination, Cuccinelli paid homage to his track record of challenging federal initiatives under President Barack Obama, particularly the 2010 health care reform law, and stressed his role in battling Internet predators, human trafficking and domestic violence.
"Our commitment also includes fighting for the innocent who languish in prison because no one will hear their plea, and caring for Virginians who struggle with mental illness,'' he said.
And on a morning when a few dozen abortion-rights demonstrators with pink shirts and signs stood in the rain across from the Richmond Coliseum protesting the nomination, Cuccinelli made scant mention of the issue, calling only for "defending those at both ends of life - protecting the elderly from abuse as well as the unborn.''
A conservative crowd greeted him enthusiastically, though not with the throaty ovation he received four years ago when, as an underdog, he won a three-way convention battle to become attorney general. Unopposed this time, there was no outpouring of the tea party's coiled-snake yellow flags emblazoned with the Revolutionary War credo "Don't Tread on Me.''
"He's the answer,'' said Oliver L. North, the former Iran-Contra figure and 1994 GOP U.S. Senate nominee who unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb. "With him at the top of the ticket, we win.''
Democrats said Cucinnelli's centrist turn is a ruse to mask his anti-abortion efforts.
"From his 'personhood' legislation that would have banned the birth control pill to his backdoor abortion ban regulations, Ken Cuccinelli has always put his extreme agenda ahead of what's best for Virginia families and that is absolutely what he would do as governor,'' said Del. Charnielle Herring of Alexandria, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
Cuccinelli spent much of his address hammering McAuliffe about an electric-car company with ties to China that he led and his decision to locate a factory in north Mississippi last year.
"When my opponent was faced with the choice of investing in Virginia, with one of the best business environments in America, or investing in Mississippi, with one of the worst business environments in America, what did he do? He dropped us like a hot brick for Mississippi moolah - Mississippi tax money,'' Cuccinelli said.
Most of the day's convention was consumed by a battle for the lieutenant governor nomination among state Sen. Steve Martin of Chesterfield; Del. Scott Lingamfelter and Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, both of Prince William County; former state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis of Fairfax County, the Rev. E.W. Jackson of Chesapeake and Fairfax businessman Pete Snyder. Jackson finally won the nomination on the fourth ballot to become the first black candidate the party has nominated for statewide office since 1988.
Late Saturday afternoon, State Senator Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg was nominated as the party's candidate for Attorney General.