Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli are back at each other's throats after putting aside their heated gubernatorial race during the presidential election for the good of the Republican Party.
Their race to replace Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2013 is already well-underway, and it sounds an awful lot like the Republican presidential primary showdown between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.
Bolling, who chaired Romney's Virginia campaign, pits himself as the candidate with the best chance of beating whomever the Democrats put up.
"Republicans need to be focused on making sure we nominate a candidate who can win," said Bolling, 55, who has McDonnell's backing. "I know Ken Cuccinelli well. I know his strengths, and I know his weaknesses. I have serious reservations about his electability and his ability to effectively and responsibly lead our state."
Cuccinelli, 44, never formally endorsed Santorum but made it clear he preferred the former Pennsylvania senator, and he offers a similar aggressive brand of conservatism. Cuccinelli took issue with Bolling's postelection analysis that Republicans must do more in 2013 to capture independent voters.
"It's hard to say Mitt Romney failed to try to reach out to moderate and independent voters, and I think it's strange for his state chairman to be saying that," Cuccinelli said.
The state Republican Party, fueled by Cuccinelli backers, decided earlier this year to elect its nominee in a convention instead of a primary.
Starting in January, Republicans will begin hold meetings in all 178 counties and cities to elect delegates to attend the statewide convention in June. That means the Bolling-Cuccinelli race will catch fire in the coming weeks as they prepare their activists for this complex insider process.
Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and one-time candidate for governor, is the only Democrat who has declared he will run for governor. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed McAuliffe edging either Bolling or Cuccinelli in a general election, with many voters undecided. McAuliffe did slightly better against Cuccinelli in the poll.
If Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., entered the race, he would immediately become a heavy favorite to win the election. A formal decision from Warner, a former governor, is expected before Thanksgiving.
Cuccinelli, who represented Northern Virginia in the Senate and still lives there, is confident he will capture that region en route to a victory at the convention. He's already anticipating a November date with McAuliffe.
Bolling's advice to Cuccinelli: Don't get ahead of yourself.
"There's no question that the attorney general is a very self-confident young man," Bolling said. "It's one of his less appealing qualities."