RICHMOND -- Up to now, there hasn't been a good way to tell if the "rock star" status of Ken Cuccinelli is being oversold at this convention. We're in Virginia. He's Virginia's attorney general. It only makes sense that they'd love him.
And then Cucinnelli joined George Allen, the state's governor for four years and senator for six, for the afternoon National Policy Forum. Allen is widely expected to challenge Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) in 2012. Before his speech, he staked out the hallway and shook hands with Tea Partiers; every four or five seconds, one would beg him to return to politics.
So far so good. Onstage, however, Allen was well-liked but workmanlike. He got a standing ovation even though a group called Virginians for Constitutional Government was passing out fliers calling him a "Tea Party FAKE" and "Bush-era SELLOUT" who supported Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind. The speech that followed lacked, well, fire. Allen went through the accomplishments of his term as governor. His nods to the Tea Party were just a little awkward. "I have a tie," he said, "that has the signatures of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence, with Thomas Jefferson prominent." The crowd loved it but no one throw roses on the stage.
Enter Cuccinelli. His opening ovation was louder than Allen's, for what that's worth. But from that point, Cuccinelli tossed hunk after hunk of red meat, harking back to his lawsuits against the federal government and putting them in context as part of a last ditch effort to save the country.
"If we lose this case against health care," said Cuccinelli, "federalism is dead."
He effortlessly moved back and forth between soaring appeals to history and the Constitution and, well, jokes. One way to look at the health care bill, he said, was to replace the mandate for health care -- his lawsuit is "not about health care," but about federalism -- as a mandate for something else. Like a Chevy.
"Folks, I own a Chevy Equinox," said Cuccinelli. He paused for effect. "You don't want to own a Chevy Equinox."
Moderator Barbara Hollingsworth asked Cuccinelli to expand on that. Why would it be the death of federalism? Cuccinelli responded with prose five shades deeper than Grimace, starting with the fact that the "we filed our lawsuit a mile down the same street" where Patrick Henry gave his "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech. (Of course! It was in Richmond.) And then he compared the bill to the Stamp Tax.
"Today we have a Congress and a president that think they have the power that King George and the Continental Congress acknowledged that they did not have," said Cuccinelli.
I'm struck by how adept Cuccinelli is at using strong and loaded language without coming off as cruel. Dismissing the idea that Barack Obama would respond to Republican midterm wins by moving right, Cuccinelli said he wouldn't: "We will still be taking it in the teeth." He also called the health care mandate a "diktat," a word I associate with the impositions of the Treaty of Versailles.