RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling said Wednesday that he will not run for governor in 2013, citing the state party's decision to choose its nominees through a convention instead of a statewide primary.
Bolling's decision leaves conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli unopposed for the GOP nomination at the June convention and means a likely showdown in next fall's gubernatorial election between him and Terry McAuliffe, the longtime associate of former President Bill Clinton and the only Democrat to announce his candidacy so far.
Bolling's gubernatorial ambitions had been nurtured for years, since his election as lieutenant governor in 2005.
Four years ago, he stepped aside for fellow Republican Bob McDonnell and won re-election in exchange for McDonnell's support for Bolling's gubernatorial bid in 2013.
But that was predicated on the nomination being decided in a primary open to all Virginia voters, not a convention, which tend to be dominated by conservative GOP delegates.
"For the past several months my campaign team has worked hard to restructure our campaign to effectively compete in the convention process. While we have made a great deal of progress, I reluctantly concluded that the decision to change the method of nomination from a primary to a convention created too many obstacles for us to overcome," Bolling said in a statement.
He said he also was concerned that deep divisions in the party could be created by a prolonged campaign between Cuccinelli and him.
"The convention process would have forced Republican activists to take sides against their friends in local committees all across our state," Bolling said. "The wounds that can develop from that type of process are often difficult to heal."
Cuccinelli - who became a hero to the state's tea party groups by challenging President Barack Obama's health care reforms and hounding a former University of Virginia climate change researcher - was delighted by Bolling's decision.
"Throughout this race, I have kept to the premise that Bill and I are allies in governance, even if temporary competitors in politics," Cuccinelli said in a press statement issued by his campaign committee.
Bolling knew last summer that his prospects had dimmed substantially after the state GOP's rulemaking central committee reversed a previous decision to hold a primary in favor of a convention.
They took another hit earlier this month when Republican Mitt Romney's defeat in the presidential race eliminated any prospect that McDonnell would leave the governor's office early for a possible White House post, allowing Bolling to finish out McDonnell's term and run next year as an incumbent.
Bolling and McDonnell had both asked the GOP central committee to stick with its October 2011 vote to hold a primary next spring rather than a convention.
But by June, pro-Cuccinelli conservatives had won enough seats on the committee since the previous fall - in many cases by ousting GOP moderates - to reverse the vote for a primary and set a nominating convention they would dominate.
"Conventions are by their very nature exclusive, and at a time when we need to be projecting a positive image and reaching out to involve more Virginians in the Republican Party, I am unwilling to be part of a process that could seriously damage our image and appeal," Bolling said in Wednesday's statement.
Supporters of the convention had argued that Republicans nominated at such gatherings fare better in fall elections. Conventions also prevent outsiders from meddling in Republican nominations in a state where primaries are open to all voters, and they don't saddle taxpayers with election costs.
Bolling said he and his wife, Jean Ann, plan to evaluate their future political options.
The statement did not directly address whether Bolling would fall back and seek a third four-year term as lieutenant governor, a post that has given him more power over the past year as the tie-breaking vote in a state Senate made up of 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats.
Already, more than a half-dozen candidates from both parties have announced their candidacies for lieutenant governor - and the list is growing.
"I can tell you this, I intend to remain actively involved in the 2013 campaigns - perhaps not as the Republican nominee for Governor, but as a more independent voice, making certain that the candidates keep their focus on the important issues facing our state and offer a positive and realistic vision for effectively and responsibly leading Virginia," he said.
Democrats wasted no time tying Cuccinelli's strong anti-abortion positions to those of Republicans who flamed out in high-profile Senate races this year after gaffes about reproductive rights issues: U.S. Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana.
Akin said in an interview that women's bodies developed natural defenses that blocked conception after "legitimate rape," and Mourdock said in a debate that pregnancies resulting from rape are "something that God intended to happen."
McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and close friend, fundraiser and confidante to both former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this month announced his second gubernatorial bid.
In 2009, McAuliffe and his bitter intraparty rival, outgoing state Democratic Party chairman Brian Moran, savaged each other in a three-way primary that state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds won. Deeds lost in a rout to McDonnell.