WINCHESTER, Va. — It’s Saturday morning in this small town in northwest Virginia and Ken Cuccinelli is chatting with a voter about televisions in prison.
“Why do they get all these benefits as prisoners?” the man asks the Republican attorney general of Virginia. “AC, TV?”
“Well they don’t get AC everywhere,” Cuccinelli explains. “They don’t get ACs in our prisons. They may get it in some federal prisons, but in Virginia, frankly, our prisons are so old, they’re not in great facilities.”
As the 44-year-old aspiring governor continues talking about the commonwealth’s judicial and penal system, the thousands of people with cotton candy and funnel cakes in their hands at the annual Apple Blossom Festival don’t seem to realize that the guy who could become their next governor is there too.
“Cooch,” as some call him, isn’t trying to be the center of attention that day. Neither the candidate nor his two aides trailing him that day are wearing any campaign stickers or carrying any signs. He’s there to talk with people and see what’s stirring them up these days. More than a few talk about burdensome regulations. Others bring up health care.
He’s doing this because he’s running for governor against Democrat Terry McAuliffe — the former Democratic National Committee chairman and best friend to Bill Clinton – in what will likely be the biggest and most watched race of 2013.
“I’ve been in our prisons,” Cuccinelli tells me in between talking with people at the carnival, when I ask him about his earlier conversation. “Maybe McAuliffe has. But I doubt it.”
Since being elected attorney general of Virginia in 2009, the outspoken Cuccinelli — the first attorney general to sue over Obamacare — has become a favorite of conservatives across the country.
Yet on this day in Winchester, Cuccinelli — in a yellow golf shirt and casual brown jacket — is spending most of his time just reminding people in his own state who he is.
“Good morning!” Cuccinelli says to one group eating funnel cakes before the parade at the festival starts. “Can I say hi? I’m Ken Cuccinelli. I’m running for governor. And you’re eating better than I!”
An older man in the group immediately asks: “Are you a Republican or Democrat?”
“I’m Republican,” Cuccinelli says. “Yes sir.
“Oh, good for you!” the man responds, approvingly.
“I’m currently the attorney general,” Cuccinelli explains. “We got about six more months until election day this year.”
This routine happens several more times.
Beau Correll, a local lawyer and chairman of the Winchester Republican Committee, leads the way. “Hey, how’re you doing? I’m going to introduce you to Ken Cuccinelli, he’s running for governor.”
At one point, a woman interrupts. “I’m sorry. What is your name again?”
“Ken Cuccinelli,” he says. “I’m your lawyer, and you didn’t know it!”
Another woman tells him she likes his name, and is glad she can put a face to it: “Now when I see you on TV, I’ll say, ‘I know that guy!’” she told him.
Despite Cuccinelli’s prominence, these reactions aren’t too surprising. A Washington Post poll released over the weekend indicates that only 10 percent of voters in Virginia are following the campaign “very closely.”
But the poll came with good news for Cuccinelli in what is expected to be a close race: he’s leading McAuliffe 51 to 41 percent among likely voters.