At least one candidate for governor in Virginia is publicly praising Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell for successfully pushing through the legislature a historic deal to fund transportation: Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

"This was a big deal," McAuliffe said Tuesday. "Was this a legacy item for Gov. McDonnell? You bet it was."

The Democrat's unabashed embrace of the popular Republican leader on his signature legislative achievement -- a top issue in Northern Virginia -- is the latest attempt by McAuliffe to portray himself a pragmatic leader whose thinking is more in line with the sitting governor than is Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's, a Tea Party favorite and Republican candidate for governor.

"If Ken Cuccinelli is attacking me, he's attacking Gov. Bob McDonnell, he's attacking Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, [House Speaker] Bill Howell," McAuliffe said during a campaign stop in Arlington. "I'm in very good company."

McAuliffe is using McDonnell's record to contrast the popular governor with Cuccinelli, whom he portrays as a conservative ideologue and extremist. McAuliffe is betting that Virginians -- particularly in traffic-clogged and voter-rich Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads -- will focus more on getting their roads fixed than on the increased taxes and fees needed to fund the work.

McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, also plays up his role in getting the transportation bill passed, including eleventh-hour phone calls to Democratic lawmakers urging them to support it. Cuccinelli not only didn't embrace the historic transportation funding package, but he denounced it as an "enormous tax increase."

Cuccinelli's aides said McAuliffe is proving only that he's a tax-and-spend liberal.

"This is just the latest example of why Terry McAuliffe's tax-and-spend agenda is out of touch with everyday middle-class Virginians," said Cuccinelli spokeswoman Anna Nix.

Cuccinelli isn't the only Republican breaking away from McDonnell as they gear up for the fall elections. Nearly all of the seven lieutenant governor candidates and both Republicans running for attorney general have criticized the transportation package. That criticism is widely seen as an indication that the GOP doesn't intend to follow McDonnell's example from his 2009 race, in which he focused on issues like jobs and the economy rather than the red-meat social issues important to conservatives but alienating to moderate Democrats and independents.

One Republican candidate for statewide office who did not want to be named told The Washington Examiner that Cuccinelli is the new face of the state GOP and suggested the "party has gotten away from McDonnell."

McDonnell insists he's supporting Cuccinelli in this year's race despite their differences. But the governor also took a shot at his critics, including Cuccinelli, who he said "ought to read the bill a little closer" before denouncing it. He singled out Cuccinelli, noting the attorney general once supported an alternative roads plan "that was a big tax increase."

McAuliffe's backing of McDonnell will only highlight a divide in the Virginia GOP, said Mo Elleithee, a longtime Democratic strategist.

"What it does is drive a rift between Cuccinelli and McDonnell," Elleithee said. "It is going to be awkward for Cuccinelli to campaign against this transportation plan or to attack McAuliffe for supporting it."