WASHINGTON - The split between conservative Republicans and moderates will be on vivid display in this swing state over the next few months, a struggle that will be watched closely as key to the party's hopes for a national revival.
The virtually certain nomination of conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as the Republican gubernatorial candidate has party centrists concerned that they will lose a winnable contest. They've seen Republicans fall in states where ultra-conservatives ran their favorite candidates but alienated middle-of-the-road voters crucial to winning general elections.
The mainstream hope seems to be Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who plans to announce Thursday whether he'll bolt the party and run as an independent. Should Bolling run it would trigger a bitter campaign that would illustrate day after day the schism dividing the party.
Bolling seemed a logical choice, the kind of centrist candidate in the tradition of statewide winners such as Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, former Republican Sen. John Warner or Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both former governors.
Bolling was the next in line to head the Republican ticket until Cuccinelli surprised the state's political establishment by launching his own effort, fueled by his strong corps of grass-roots supporters.
Cuccinelli all but locked up the nomination when the party decided to choose its nominee in a state convention, where ideological activists can dominate.
Republicans everywhere are said to be watching closely. The triumph of the far right over establishment candidates has cost the party Senate seats in at least five states, most recently in Missouri and Indiana, that it was expected to win.
The toll has been striking. Had the GOP taken those five seats - not a given, but a possibility - the Senate would be 50-50 today.
A lot of Republicans are worried that Virginia will be the conservative crusaders' next victim, as the fiercely anti-Obama Cuccinelli faces the same problem as candidates in other states who were darlings of the far right: He could be painted as an extremist, particularly in a state that's voted twice for Obama and is more purple now than solid Republican red.
Cuccinelli issued a legal opinion authorizing law enforcement to inquire about the immigration status of anyone they stopped. He advised public colleges and universities to rescind policies barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He filed suit against the federal government, challenging its efforts to regulate greenhouse gases. He was the first state official to challenge the 2010 health care law in court.
Cuccinelli is "too easy to portray as out of touch with the mainstream," said former New Hampshire Republican chairman Fergus Cullen. He and some others are frustrated, because Virginia could be an important momentum-maker.
"This race is going to be 80 percent national, 20 percent local," said former Virginia U.S. Rep. Tom Davis.
Democrats are seen as vulnerable. Opponents will paint the all-but-certain Democratic nominee - former Democratic National Party chairman Terry McAuliffe - as more of a national liberal figure. Foes have an opportunity to define him, as a Quinnipiac poll last month found that 60 percent of Virginians don't know enough about him to form an opinion.
To win, a candidate must appeal to the 40 percent of the electorate that considers itself independent, Kaine said. The Quinnipiac poll found that 27 percent of independents view Cuccinelli favorably and 25 percent unfavorably.
Bolling's record is conservative, too, but his style is regarded as more pragmatic and conciliatory.
"Bolling is clearly someone Cuccinelli would prefer not to have in the race," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll.
The challenge for Bolling, said Davis, is that an independent candidate needs one of the major parties to collapse. So far that doesn't seem likely. Both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli start with roughly 35 percent backing and eager supporters, as well as their parties' fundraising and organizational machinery.
That's hard for a nonaligned candidate to match, and the Republican Governors Association is firmly behind Cuccinelli.
"What's not in doubt is that the vast majority of Virginia Republicans are united behind Attorney General Cuccinelli, who has won statewide and has strong backing from state and national Republicans," said Republican Governors Association spokesman Mike Schrimpf.
Cuccinelli supporters figure he'll soften the rough edges.
"I know philosophically where he is, but that's not what drives him. He wants to be a good governor, and this race is going to be about the economy and jobs," said former state Republican chairman and Lt. Gov. John Hager, a Cuccinelli supporter.
That could be a plus, said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former governor. "There's usually much less ideology involved" in a gubernatorial race, Alexander said. "Voters want someone capable of leading and managing an organization."