Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's decision Wednesday to drop his bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination paves the way for a battle royale between Republican state Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe — a campaign that could be radically altered if Mr. Bolling follows through on hints he might pursue an independent run.
Such a move would turn on its head a race that's already ensured a national audience thanks to Virginia's tradition of holding gubernatorial elections in odd years and would also test the loyalties of many within the party hungry to rebound from a disappointing 2012 election season.
More immediately, Mr. Bolling's announcement Wednesday brought out the knives on both the left and the right, who wasted no time in launching broadsides against the current declared candidates.
"It is disappointing that more mainstream Virginia Republicans are being driven out of leadership by the far right," said Mr. McAuliffe, a businessman and clean-energy entrepreneur. "Virginia voters have repeatedly made clear that they prefer mainstream leaders building consensus instead of politicians pursuing their own ideological agenda."
But Republicans enjoy pointing out that Mr. McAuliffe, President Clinton's money man during the 1990s, raised $7 million for the 2009 Democratic gubernatorial primary, only to finish second in a three-person race.
"While Ken has devoted his public life to making sure Virginia is a great place to raise a family and start business, Chairman McAuliffe has spent the last two decades as a Democratic fundraiser showing no interest in Virginia issues until running a losing campaign for governor," said Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association.
New Jersey is the only other state to hold a gubernatorial contest in 2013, and Republican Gov. Chris Christie recently confirmed he will run for re-election. A recent Quinnipiac University poll put Mr. Christie's approval rating at 72 percent, and if he does not face a strong challenger (popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker has been mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate), attention and resources could quickly shift to Virginia — where there are no campaign-contribution limits.
Mr. Bolling, who is more moderate politically than the conservative Mr. Cuccinelli, was considered an underdog to the attorney general in part because the state party plans to pick its nominee at a convention rather than a primary. Conventions are generally thought to favor candidates who represent the more extreme wings of their party.
In one suggestion he might be eyeing an independent run, Mr. Bolling told The Richmond Times-Dispatch on Wednesday he has no plans to endorse a candidate in the Virginia race and took an obvious jab at Mr. Cuccinelli.
"I have serious reservations about his ability to effectively and responsibly lead the state," he said, adding that he might consider a third run for lieutenant governor in the future but that he would not feel comfortable running on a statewide ticket with Mr. Cuccinelli.
Mr. Bolling put off a bid for governor in 2009 in exchange for then-state Attorney General Bob McDonnell's support in 2013, but his road to the nomination hit a speed bump when Mr. Cuccinelli indicated about a year ago his intention to run. Mr. Bolling said Wednesday he had hoped to run on a unified ticket akin to 2009 and was "surprised and disappointed" by Mr. Cuccinelli's decision.
But the wording in Mr. Bolling's Wednesday announcement also appeared to leave the door open for a possible independent run, after he announced only that he would "suspend his campaign for the Republican Party's nomination for governor of Virginia."
"I intend to remain actively involved in the 2013 campaigns — perhaps not as the Republican nominee for Governor, but as a more independent voice, making certain that the candidates keep their focus on the important issues facing our state and offer a positive and realistic vision for effectively and responsibly leading Virginia," he said.
Boyd Marcus, a top adviser for Mr. Bolling's campaign, agreed the statement could be read as the lieutenant weighing a possible independent run.
"I think that could be a reasonable interpretation, but I think you have to ask him tomorrow specifically," said Mr. Marcus, referring to a news conference Mr. Bolling scheduled for Thursday morning to discuss his decision and his plans. "Certainly, he left it in there, so I think that's a reasonable line to pursue."
In a statement, Mr. McDonnell praised Mr. Bolling for his public service and his decision and said that "as we prepare for the 2013 campaign, I look forward to helping elect Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as the next governor of Virginia."
Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Pat Mullins also praised Mr. Bolling on Wednesday, saying in a statement that his move "was as surprising to me as it was selfless."
In a recent interview, Mr. Mullins said the 2013 elections would be crucial for the party.
"[W]e just lost the presidency, and we don't want to lose two in a row," Mr. Mullins said.
Mr. McAuliffe, the only Democrat who has declared his intention to run, appears to have a clear path to the nomination now that popular Sen. Mark R. Warner, a former governor, announced that he would stay in the Senate, rather than run for governor again next year. Some Virginia Democrats have been pushing former Rep. Tom Perriello, now the president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, to run statewide since he lost his congressional seat to Rep. Robert Hurt in 2010. His name surfaced once again Wednesday after news of Mr. Bolling's decision broke.
One person close to Mr. Perriello said he has never ruled out running for office again, but that it would be surprising if he jumped in at this point -- an opinion echoed by several other Virginia Democrats.
"I don't know whether he is prepared at this point to put together a team to challenge Terry," said a state party official. "Tom's young. He's got plenty of time to run. He's got himself a good vantage point where he sits right now."
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