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.
Some of the spectators at the festival know Cuccinelli and immediately ask him about McAuliffe. “He was Clinton’s campaign manager, is that what he was?” one man asks.
“Fundraiser,” Cuccinelli responds. “He rented out the Lincoln Bedroom. Remember that?”
The voter complains that the media isn’t as hard on the Democratic candidate. “McAuliffe is almost getting a free ride with his green company in Mississippi,” he tells Cuccinelli.
The Republican lights up. His campaign has been hitting the Democrat on Greentech, his electric car company. They’ve been asking why McAuliffe built the company’s plant outside of Virginia, why he quietly resigned from the company last year and why the company hasn’t produced more jobs like he claimed it would at its launch.
“He built his whole campaign on the notion that you should vote for him for governor because he’s such a spectacular businessman, ‘see my leadership of Greentech proves it.’ Well, that has fallen apart,” Cuccinelli told me. “Fallen apart.”
“Nothing he has said was true about it,” he continued. “And so now they’re scrambling. I have yet to discern a new reason, a central theme, for why you should vote for McAuliffe for governor.”
When it comes to many papers in Virginia, Cuccinelli said, there’s a “double standard” for coverage of Republicans and Democrats.
“I’m almost used to it,” he told a man at the parade, “growing up with the Washington Post. I will tell you, I assumed it was the worst paper in Virginia for bias. Well it’s not. It’s not even close. The Virginian Pilot is worse. And worse than that is the Roanoke paper.”
Cuccinelli’s campaign has been calling on McAuliffe to release his tax returns. What does Cuccinelli want to see?
“Really just comparison to regular people,” he said.
When I ask about how his campaign seems to be taking a page from the Obama 2012 campaign playbook against Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Cuccinelli cracks a smile. “How about that?”
“Part of what we’re doing is just holding them to their own standard. And they can’t meet it,” he said.
Is McAuliffe like Romney?
“No,” Cuccinelli responded. “I think Romney was a good businessman.”
I ask Cuccinelli about the resurfacing of passages last week from McAuliffe’s 2007 memoir, “What a Party!: My Life Among Democrats, Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators, And Other Wild Animals,” about ditching his wife while she was in labor for Democratic fundraisers. McAuliffe admits he once left his wife and newborn in the car on the way home from the hospital to attend a fundraiser.
“Well, when we started this race, my wife read his book,” Cuccinelli said. “And the very first thing she pointed out to me — ‘You won’t believe this!’ — was one of those stories.”
Last week, Cuccinelli went up on TV with his first ad, featuring his wife, Teiro, saying her husband has spent his life “standing up for the vulnerable and those in need.”
“She’s talking about things that are below the radar,” he said as we walked through the parade route. “Not the usual. And I think people pay more attention to those from her than from me.”
Was this meant to soften him up?
“I assume so,” he said, his voice getting higher. “Good grief, I would definitely think that’s one thing that happens.”
Cuccinelli says he enjoys the art of campaigning, especially when the “adrenaline” hits in the remaining days of a race.
“It’s fun,” he said. “But it also has a different physical feel to it. It’s very unusual.”
Cory Chenard, a young aide who drives Cuccinelli around Virginia, said he’s put more than 50,000 miles on the Chevy Equinox they’ve been riding around in over the last nine months. “We got an oil change yesterday,” Chenard said. “Last oil change we had was six weeks ago. And in that time frame we went 10,000 miles.”
But as Cuccinelli made the rounds Saturday, not everyone admitted to being a fan, though even his harshest critic seemed to appreciate his effort.
“I’m Ken Cuccinelli,” he said to an older man along the parade route. “I’m running for governor.”
“Hey Ken, I couldn’t disagree more with everything you stand for.”
“Everything?” Cuccinelli responded.
“Everything,” he said. “Not one thing you’ve ever done that I’ve liked.”
“I’ve never met a person who doesn’t agree with me on something,” the Republican said.
“Well, you’ve met him. My name is Bob Krzywicki. I hope you lose. But thanks for coming to talk to me. I appreciate it.”