Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli will address a crowd of like-minded activists at Thursday's opening of the Conservative Political Action Conference even as he attempts to transition his campaign to capture a broader swath of voters.
Cuccinelli, who is running for governor, is one of many high-profile Republicans scheduled to speak during the three-day conservative confab at the National Harbor, including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and outspoken billionaire Donald Trump. With the snubbing of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Cuccinelli is the biggest name on the program actually running for office this year.
Expectations are high for him, but there could be repercussions if his speech caters too much to the friendly crowd.
"When a candidate is with true believers, he will say things that thrill them but alienate the swing voters that determine the election," said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "If he wants to win, he must become the generic Republican candidate Virginians are used to."
Cuccinelli is already changing his messaging from the anti-federal government rhetoric in his new book to promoting a "pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda." The Republican nominee told supporters Wednesday he is focused on a "comprehensive transportation plan that addresses our long-term needs, and fashioning pro-growth tax reform," an homage to the kitchen-table issues Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell successfully ran on in 2009. And he promised to carry the torch for the "McDonnell, Bolling, Cuccinelli team."
Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe's campaign mocked Cuccinelli's attempt to align himself with Lt. Gov. Bolling, the man Cuccinelli outmaneuvered to gain the party's nomination.
"Cuccinelli's only contribution to the McDonnell-Bolling legacy was trying to torpedo their signature achievement, the bipartisan transportation compromise," said McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin.
Cuccinelli had a small speaking role at CPAC last year but will get about 10 minutes in front of the crowd this time. One Republican speechwriter to a former CPAC speaker said to go for a single, not a home run.
"The natural inclination every speaker, especially those onstage for the first time, has is to deliver a stemwinder that will go down in conservative history," the speechwriter said. "Best advice is to shoot for solid over soaring."