HOT SPRINGS, Va. — Hundreds of Virginia Republicans gathered over the weekend at the posh Homestead resort for their annual retreat, with the talk being dominated by an unexpected topic: the 2013 gubernatorial race and last week's surprise entry by Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II.
Mr. Cuccinelli's bombshell announcement that he would challenge Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling left Virginia Republicans and Bolling supporters here wondering how the lieutenant governor would handle the issue.
"I wish I didn't have to say anything about 2013," Mr. Bolling said Saturday in an address that elicited laughter and tears. "Unfortunately, because of the events of the past few days, we no longer have that opportunity."
On Thursday, he issued a quick, sharp response accusing Mr. Cuccinelli of putting "his own personal ambition ahead of the best interests of the commonwealth and the Republican Party." On Saturday, however, Mr. Bolling tried instead to put a hold on what is likely to be a bitter, expensive battle for the nomination.
"Now is not that time. What happens in 2012, the [possible] election of a Republican U.S. senator in Virginia and a Republican president, is of far more importance to the future of the country than what happens to Bill Bolling or Ken Cuccinelli in 2013," he said to a standing ovation.
Mr. Bolling's voice broke up toward the end of the speech when he talked about growing up in Southwest Virginia as the son of a coal miner and a waitress who gave him every opportunity to eventually serve "the greatest state that the greatest nation has ever known."
Mr. Cuccinelli did not attend the retreat, officially known as Republican Party of Virginia Advance, because he was one of three questioners for a GOP presidential debate in New York on Saturday night.
Though Mr. Bolling took the high ground in calling for party unity next year, he acknowledged offstage his disappointment about Mr. Cuccinelli's plans.
"He had never indicated to me that he was thinking about running, and his announcement came as a total surprise," Mr. Bolling told The Washington Times.
Mr. Bolling said one of his biggest problems with the announcement was the timing [-] just two days before the retreat and before nominees for 2012 elections are set.
"When you start one of these campaigns two years in advance, there are just a lot of potential ripple effects from that, none of which are good," Mr. Bolling said. "Even if he were inclined to run, which is certainly his right, I wish he would have waited until much longer in the process so that we didn't create these potentials for division and distraction. We need to be solely focused on the  legislative session and the 2012 campaigns. And we just can't let a premature discussion of 2013 distract us or divide us."
In an email Thursday to staff, Mr. Cuccinelli said he would have preferred to hold off announcing until after next year's legislative session, but wanted to put rumors to rest.
Bolling supporter Jerry Burke, of Spotsylvania County, said both men have sufficient experience. However, he questioned Mr. Cuccinelli's move, considering that Mr. Bolling deferred to Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009 in exchange for the governor's support in 2013.
"Bolling didn't run last time and stepped aside," he said. "The Republican Party is kind of like the chamber of commerce [-] it promotes from within."
Still, Mr. Cuccinelli has strong conservative support across the state and significantly higher <t$>name recognition as a result of his challenge of President Obama's health care overhaul and his legal opinions on such issues as gay rights, abortion and immigration.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bolling serves as the governor's chief jobs-creation officer and has focused on less hot-button, kitchen-table issues, traveling the state to promote and highlight economic development.
"Cuccinelli is an intellectual heavyweight," said Gary C. Byler, a longtime GOP activist and chairman of the state's 2nd Congressional District Republican Committee. "He's a philosophical leader."
"We all appreciate what Bill Bolling's done for the party," he said. "Nobody I've spoken to has said anything bad about Bill Bolling. They're just excited about Ken Cuccinelli."
Mr. Cuccinelli also indicated that he will serve the remainder of his term, instead of resigning to run for governor as has been the tradition for recent attorneys general, including Mr. McDonnell.
He defended the move by telling the Associated Press that Virginia is "the only state in the country that sees any strain of thought where people feel the need to take that step."
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