AP Political Writer
RICHMOND, Va. - Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's exit from the governor's race could tear a chasm within the Republican Party between conservatives and moderates just weeks after the party suffered disappointing losses at the polls and just ahead of next year's high-profile gubernatorial contest.
Even if Bolling doesn't pursue an independent candidacy _ a prospect he has left conspicuously open _ he can do plenty of damage just by withholding his endorsement from the likely conservative GOP standard-bearer, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
And already, that possibility has led to some finger-pointing within the party.
Tea party leader Jamie Radtke, a Cuccinelli supporter, says Bolling and "establishment Republicans" such as Gov. Bob McDonnell who are accustomed to having their way in dictating nominations aren't happy that conservatives elbowed Bolling out.
"When we finally get smart and say `Let's control the party apparatus so that we don't have to continue to get bad policy,' they want to take their toys and go home," said Radtke, who unsuccessfully challenged George Allen for the GOP Senate nomination this year.
"He (Bolling) wants voters to abide by a bargain he and Bob (McDonnell) made behind closed doors," said Radtke, who attended a Wednesday news conference where Bolling elaborated on his decision to drop out of the race and not endorse his rival, Cuccinelli.
Bolling supporter Brandon Bell, a moderate two-time Republican state senator from Roanoke County who lost his 2007 primary to conservative Ralph Smith, said he fears Bolling's exit illustrates a rift within the GOP where moderates are exiled.
"This is not the time you want to be coming apart at the seams," said Bell, who lost an independent comeback bid for his old Senate seat in 2011.
"It's not typically how you build governing coalitions by saying `We can't work with those people so we don't want you in our camp,'" he said. "Bill and Ken are both conservatives, it's just that Ken's a crusader."
Bolling has not disguised his disdain for Cuccinelli and for a vote by the state party's rulemaking central committee in June that switched the nomination method from a primary election, which Bolling felt he could win, to a closed convention stacked with conservatives where his gubernatorial aspirations seven years in the making would die.
"Nobody's been a more loyal Republican trooper than I've been. Nobody loves the Republican Party more than I do," he said. "But two things I've tried not to do in my career: I don't violate my principles, (and) I don't do things that violate my conscience. And as I look at the candidates that are out there right now, I cannot in good conscience give my endorsement to one of those candidates."
"We've got to decide: Do we want to be a party that engages in the great ideological debates of the day or do we actually want to be a party that wins elections, earns the right to lead and then leads effectively," he said.
That was a jab at the socially conservative mission Cuccinelli has assumed as an activist attorney general since he was sworn in three years ago. He was the first state attorney general to challenge the "Obamacare" health coverage reforms, sued the federal government over clean-air regulations, launched a two-year inquest into a former University of Virginia climate researcher and backed down the state Board of Health's effort to soften the building standards on abortion clinics.
Yet on most policy debates, Cuccinelli and Bolling have been together in substance if not style.
Not even Bolling's detractors impugn his credentials as a conservative. Radtke said she could not apply to Bolling the title RINO, or Republican in name only, that conservatives reserve for Republicans they consider apostates.
Virginia Republican chairman Pat Mullins noted that in voicing disappointment at Bolling's refusal to embrace Cuccinelli and his leaving open the possibility an independent spoiler campaign against the GOP nominee.
"Nowhere in his statements does he mention a policy disagreement with the attorney general," Mullins said. "The proper venue for challenging a fellow Republican is during a nomination contest. Lt. Gov. Bolling chose to suspend his campaign. I hope he will take his own words to heart and work to bring our party together."
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