RICHMOND — Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II railed against the federal health care law before hundreds of tea party activists on the Mall on Saturday, calling the Obama administration "the greatest set of lawbreakers to ever run the federal government in our lifetimes."
On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling similarly denounced the law as "a direct assault on liberty that we all hold dear in this country" - only his remarks were made in Richmond in the dining room of a small business, where he was flanked by a handful of state and national Republican leaders.
As the 2013 gubernatorial campaign gets under way, health care is likely to be one area where Mr. Cuccinelli has an advantage over Mr. Bolling — an edge he is already beginning to exploit.
"When you're a Republican attorney general and there's a Democratic president in the White House, the environment is tailor-made for Virginia's attorney general to be one of the most visible points of opposition to that Democratic president," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. "Cuccinelli has owned health care from day one in Virginia. Whatever the Supreme Court decides, Cuccinelli does not lose."
Mr. Cuccinelli was the first to file a lawsuit against the federal government over the reform, saying a state law stipulating that no Virginians could be forced to purchase health care countered the federal mandate that most Americans purchase health insurance or face a penalty.
The Supreme Court decided not to hear Virginia's case, but that didn't stop Mr. Cuccinelli from heading to Washington to listen in on the arguments in a separate, multi-state lawsuit.
"I think things went well for the limited government side, for the states," he said Wednesday. "I think they may rip the whole law out. I have been cautiously optimistic from the start. I got more optimistic yesterday."
Mr. Bolling may be united with Mr. Cuccinelli in opposition to the federal health care law, but the two have traded jabs since the attorney general announced in December he would seek the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2013.
After the announcement, Mr. Bolling issued a statement accusing Mr. Cuccinelli of putting his own ambitions ahead of the good of the party by running against him in what likely will be a bruising primary battle.
Mr. Cuccinelli's wife, Teiro, recently fired back, writing to supporters that "in the past two years, it has become clear that Virginia and the rest of the country are suffering from a lack of firm, principled conservative leaders… men and women willing not just to talk about our principles, but to stick their necks out and lead on tough issues!"
Mr. Bolling took umbrage at the comments — not just for himself, but on behalf of Gov. Bob McDonnell and other Republican leaders around the state.
"I don't have the foggiest idea of what she was talking about, and I consider her comments to be an attack on Gov. McDonnell and me and every other Republican leader that has worked hard for the past two years to get our state back on the right track," Mr. Bolling said. "Virginia has had very strong and principled conservative leadership for the last two years, and for someone to come out of the blocks attacking Virginia's Republican leadership in that way I thought was a bit over-the-top."
Mr. Bolling said the two men still talk. Mr. Cuccinelli's office defended the lieutenant governor in a lawsuit challenging Mr. Bolling's ability to cast tie-breaking votes on matters of organization in the Senate. The lawsuit was later dropped.
Mr. Cuccinelli, in part because of high-profile lawsuits against the federal government, maintains higher name recognition in both Virginia and across the country than Mr. Bolling.
The Republican Party of Iowa announced this week that the attorney general will keynote the state's annual Lincoln dinner in May. And nearly half of the Virginia voters polled in a recent Quinnipiac survey this month had no opinion on Mr. Bolling. In Mr. Cuccinelli's case, the number was under 25 percent.
While both men are still generally viewed by Virginia voters favorably, Mr. Bolling appears interested in testing whether the high-profile issues Mr. Cuccinelli is best known for might work against him on the campaign trail.
He cautioned that for Republicans to succeed in November and beyond, they cannot fall prey to becoming a party of rigid ideology.
"Governing has to be about more than breaking the dishes," he said. "It has to be about building consensus and finding solutions to problems. … We have to be viewed as a conservative party whose focus is on results."
© Copyright 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.