Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli kicked off the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday by bashing his detractors and outlining a more populist agenda for his gubernatorial run.

In front of a friendly audience at National Harbor, Cuccinelli found his stride when he listed his political battles against the Obama administration. An otherwise sparse and sleepy crowd applauded when he noted he was the first state attorney general to sue President Obama over his health care reforms.

But most of Cuccinelli's 18-minute speech was focused on his race for governor and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, his opponent in the governor's race, whom he derided as an "unabashed liberal."

"Democrats and their liberal allies have labeled me as someone who must be defeated at all costs," Cuccinelli said. "They will stop at nothing to make sure I am not elected Virginia's next governor because I have dared to defend our most sacred principles rather than bow to their vision of a new American destiny."

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell didn't have a speaking role at the national convention, leaving it to Cuccinelli to represent the changing of the guard within a Republican Party that suffered heavy losses in the last election. Instead, Cuccinelli unveiled a five-point agenda for a four-year term as governor -- reforming the tax code, reducing business regulations, shrinking government, improving education and giving voice to the vulnerable -- that's closer to the issues on which McDonnell ran for office in 2009 than Cuccinelli's past conservative crusades.

The speech marked a turn by Cuccinelli toward a more tempered, less ideological campaign strategy, but it wasn't what a national audience expected from a rising star they had hoped would deliver a wake-up call to conservatives.

"I wasn't ready for a campaign speech to kick things off," said Steve Chalson, of Texas. Chalson said the next speaker, former Rep. Allen West, "made [Cuccinelli] forgettable."

Cuccinelli, though, was in a different position than most of the speakers on the program during the three-day conservative confab. The only other Republican running for major office this year is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has fallen out of favor with the party base and was not invited.

"He's great," New Jersey's Lori Lockwood said of Cuccinelli. "He's better than what Christie has become these days."

The challenge for Cuccinelli is to stick with the strategy he outlined Thursday when he returns to the campaign trail and not revert back to the more hostile conservative firebrand that Democrats are eager to run against.

"The one thing even my staunchest opponents admit is I'm a straight shooter and that I'm a man of my word," Cuccinelli said. "And when this race is over, they'll still be able to say that."