Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling on Wednesday abruptly dropped his long-held plans to run for governor next year, clearing the way for conservative firebrand Ken Cuccinelli to take the Republican nomination on his way to what is certain to be a bruising ideological battle next fall.

With Bolling's exit, Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general, is on a collision course with former Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe to replace outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell.

But Cuccinelli and McAuliffe are not the kind of centrist politicians Virginians typically elevate to the governor's mansion. Cuccinelli is a Tea Party conservative unafraid of taking controversial stances against abortion, gay rights and environmental regulations. McAuliffe is a longtime friend of former President Clinton and one of the national Democratic Party's premier fundraisers.

That's quite a divergence from McDonnell, who refused to even address social issues in his 2009 campaign, or former Gov. Mark Warner, who is now in the U.S. Senate and whose business background appeals to moderate Republicans.

"The drive is going to be toward the center, and the question is who has a tougher time of that," said Craig Brians, a political science professor at Virginia Tech. "They both have a tough row to hoe."

Though Bolling hasn't ruled out entering the race as an independent, his announcement Wednesday sparked strong reactions from both parties.

The Democratic Governors Association called Cuccinelli the "most extreme major party nominee for governor in Virginia's history." Virginia Republicans attacked McAuliffe as an opportunist and a carpetbagger whose political ambitions run much deeper than his Virginia roots.

But most encouraging for Cuccinelli was a statement of support from McDonnell, who had been planning to back Bolling against Cuccinelli for the Republican nomination.

"As we prepare for the 2013 campaign, I look forward to helping elect Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as the next governor of Virginia," McDonnell said.

Cuccinelli immediately rallied his conservative supporters. "It starts today. Are you ready?" he wrote in an email. "This race is going to be about two very clear and competing visions for the future of Virginia."

McAuliffe, meanwhile, began his assault of Cuccinelli by lamenting Bolling's exit.

"It is disappointing that more mainstream Virginia Republicans are being driven out of leadership by the far right," he said.

Though the battle between Cuccinelli and McAuliffe is considered the most likely result of Bolling's withdrawal, there are other candidates who could roil the race on either side.

Former Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello expressed interest in running, and White House party crasher Tareq Salahi plans to challenge Cuccinelli for the GOP nomination. Other would-be candidates have until March 28 to file petitions to run.

While Virginia Republicans attempted to coalesce around Cuccinelli on Wednesday, many were upset to see Bolling quit without a fight.

"I think there's some concern within the party [about Cuccinelli]," said Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton. "Ken's popular in a lot of quarters and he's certainly energetic, but he has stepped on some toes, and you have to factor that in."

But conservatives are energized by the possibility of electing Cuccinelli 12 months after Romney lost Virginia.

"We've had a few bruising battles against establishment candidates and we haven't fared too well," said Karen Hurd of the Virginia Tea Party Alliance. "So it's good to see someone in our corner this time."