- Associated Press - Monday, December 24, 2012

RICHMOND — Bill Bolling may be out of the 2013 Virginia governor’s race, at least as a Republican, but that doesn’t mean he’s off the stage and finished making news.

The lame-duck lieutenant governor says he was squeezed out of the Republican gubernatorial contest by his party’s social conservatives. He is among the Associated Press’s 2013 Virginia newsmakers to watch in elections for three statewide offices and all 100 House seats.

Top billing is shared by the likely nominees to be Virginia’s 72nd governor.

There’s Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a savvy businessman with the subtlety of a carnival sideshow barker and an inner-circle confidant to Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. He’s unchallenged for his party’s nomination in his second try and is likely to stay that way after progressive former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello decided in November to defer his plans for statewide office.

And there’s Mr. McAuliffe’s likely Republican adversary, Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, who has endeared himself to Virginia’s tea party movement by using his office the past 31/2 years to take on such left-of-center boogeymen as Obamacare, the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean air standards, a former University of Virginia climate researcher and college presidents who wanted to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Mr. Cuccinelli will mine a rich trove of Mr. McAuliffe’s past business ventures — some successful, others less so — and his tactics in raising money for the Clintons’ presidential quests. Mr. McAuliffe hopes to define Mr. Cuccinelli early as a right-wing extremist by highlighting the attorney general’s activism on such emotional issues as reproductive rights, immigration, gay rights and the environment.

At least it will be entertaining. Political professionals on both sides already roll their eyes and snicker, pondering a free-wheeling and unpredictable off-year melodrama of a race that already smacks of reality TV.

Mr. Cuccinelli’s rival for the GOP nomination, to be formalized at a June state convention in Richmond, is Tariq Salahi. In 2009, he and his then-wife, Michaele Salahi, gained fame for crashing a White House state dinner. They were featured in “The Real Housewives of D.C.” before the Bravo cable network canceled it in April 2011 after eight months. The Salahis split after Mrs. Salahi left Mr. Salahi in September 2011 for Neal Schon, lead guitarist for the rock band Journey.

Add a calliope and a dancing bear, and it’s a circus.

The wild card is Mr. Bolling, whose conservative legislative record is indistinguishable from Mr. Cuccinelli’s positions on many issues.

Mr. Bolling did not exit the race cheerfully. He didn’t disguise his disappointment that conservatives loyal to Mr. Cuccinelli quietly took over the state Republican Party’s rule-making central committee and changed the nomination method from a primary, where Mr. Bolling was competitive, to a closed convention certain to be dominated by pro-Cuccinelli conservatives.

The lieutenant governor said he will exercise newfound independence in politics and policy, and he already has begun to demonstrate this. After three years as the governor’s economic development czar, Mr. Bolling shocked Capitol Square last week by announcing his opposition to uranium mining in Virginia, a venture that represents billions of dollars in profits for some of the state’s best-connected investors.

Mr. Bolling’s tie-breaking vote in a final year presiding over the Virginia Senate ensures his relevance on the looming uranium mining battle and other meaty legislative issues. He pointedly has refused to rule out an independent candidacy that could split the GOP vote and doom Mr. Cuccinelli next fall.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, entering the fourth and final year of the single, nonrenewable term Virginia allows its governors, is still hunting for a legacy as he explores his presidential potential heading toward 2016. He hopes two reform initiatives he will place before the GOP-ruled 2013 General Assembly will secure that legacy.

In December, Mr. McDonnell debuted part of his education reform package, which conditions state funding for a 2 percent pay raise for teachers, principals, librarians and teachers’ aides on passage of legislation that would make it easier for school districts to fire underperforming teachers.

The Republican governor also promises to unveil legislation before the session convenes Jan. 9 to reform state transportation financing. He hopes to generate at least $500 million a year in new money for upkeep and repair of state roads and bridges as burgeoning maintenance costs — which have first claim on state transportation revenue — threaten to consume money for new highway construction.

The overarching story of 2013, one way or another, will be money and the damage to Virginia’s economy from Washington’s actions — or lack of them. For anything to happen in Congress, the House has to act, and at the heart of every legislative battle is Rep. Eric Cantor of Richmond, leader of the still-formidable HouseGOP majority.

In 2011, Mr. Cantor relished his role as President Obama’s designated foil when the government came within hours of exhausting its ability to borrow money to pay its bills and defaulting on its debts for the first time in U.S. history. In 2012, Mr. Cantor has been much more subdued, with House Speaker John A. Boehner taking the lead in talks with Mr. Obama as the White House and Congress struggle to reach another deficit reduction deal and avert a New Year’s Day plunge over the “fiscal cliff.”

A likely result is that Congress and the White House will agree to a stopgap measure, avoiding the January deadline and deferring decisive action later into 2013. If that happens, which Mr. Cantor will we see: the combative one who visibly angered the president on at least one occasion, or the low-profile one?

Finally, there’s Rep. J. Randy Forbes of Chesapeake, the reserved Republican who is on a collision course with Mr. McDonnell over the governor’s plans to impose $4 tolls plus $2 on-ramp and off-ramp fees on Interstate 95 near the North Carolina border. Mr. Forbes vehemently opposes the tolls on the interstate, which bisects his 4th District, one of the poorest and most rural in Virginia. Even so, he’s not ready to support higher taxes to fund transportation, either.

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