RICHMOND, Va. — 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.
The convention's more than 8,000 delegates nominated state Sen. Mark Obenshain for attorney general, giving him 55 percent of the vote over Del. Rob Bell.
And after a four-ballot marathon vote for lieutenant governor, the convention chose firebrand Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson, whose passionate rant in against federal intrusions into Virginia evoked the tone of a camp meeting and brought the long day's loudest ovation.
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's more than 8,000 delegates needed only one ballot to nominate state Sen. Mark Obenshain for attorney general, giving him 55 percent of their vote over Del. Rob Bell of Albemarle County. Obenshain's nomination comes 35 years after his father, Richard Obenshain, won the party's U.S. Senate nomination in the same building — the Richmond Coliseum — only to die a few months later in the crash of a small airplane.
But after three ballots and nearly 12 hours, five of the seven candidates for lieutenant governor had been winnowed out and the choice in the fourth and final ballot was between businessman Pete Snyder of Fairfax County and Jackson.
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.
On a morning when a few dozen abortion-rights demonstrators with pink shirts and signs stood in the rain across from the 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's leadership of an electric-car company with ties to China 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.
In accepting the nomination, Obenshain was joined on the convention stage by his mother, Helen Obenshain. After her husband's death in August of 1978, the GOP hurriedly nominated as his replacement John W. Warner, the dashing and courtly Virginia senator who headed the Armed Services Committee before his retirement in 2009.
Most of the day's convention was consumed by a battle for the lieutenant governor nomination before Jackson became the party's first black nominee for statewide office since Maurice Dawkins' U.S. Senate nomination in 1988.
"I am not an African-American, I am an American," Jackson said, bringing the overwhelmingly white crowd to its feet, roaring its approval. He had already whipped the conservative room into a frenzy by taking aim at President Barack Obama's Democratic White House and warning the federal government to get "off our backs, off of our property and off of our guns."
With Saturday's nominations done, Jackson and Obenshain join Cuccinelli beginning Sunday for a three-day statewide aerial blitz of cities across the state to introduce the state GOP ticket.
McAuliffe is unopposed for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Democrats will choose their candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general in a June 11 statewide primary election.