RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Ed Gillespie faces his first big test in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat Saturday at the Virginia Republican convention in Roanoke.
GOP delegates will pick a candidate to face incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, a popular former governor with more than $8 million in his re-election campaign bank account.
Gillespie, a former lobbyist and Republican National Committee chairman, is widely considered the front runner to win Saturday's convention. But he'll need a not just a victory, but a strong showing among a fractious state party to show he's a legitimate contender in the general election, said Quintin Kidd, Christopher Newport University political science professor.
"If he wins in a squeaker it suggests he's weak," Kidd said.
Gillespie said he feels "very good" about his chances of success but says he's taking "nothing for granted" and plans on plans on busing in delegates to the convention.
Though Gillespie's entire career has been involved in politics, this is his first time as a candidate. He first worked as a Capitol Hill aide before lobbying and consulting for energy, tobacco, finance and other companies. Gillespie also ran the Republican National Committee and advised former President George W. Bush and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Gillespie has raised more than $3 million since announcing his campaign in January, with help from a Romney-headlined fundraiser and donations from Bush and his wife, Laura.
Also vying for the GOP nomination are Shak Hill, an insurance salesman and former Air Force pilot, Tony DeTora, a congressional staffer, and Chuck Moss, the owner of at a network consulting business.
Hill has tried to position himself as the more conservative choice, and is hosting a welcome event for delegates Friday at a gun range.
He said the majority of delegates will reject Gillespie because of his inside-the-Beltway career.
"When you're there, you sell influence for money," said Hill. "And this makes you an excellent lobbyist, but it makes you a terrifically flawed United States Senate candidate."
Gillespie said he understands the questions about his past, but said the Republicans of all stripes are responding to his "free markets and free people" message.
"As they get to know my heart, my head and my gut, those questions are answered," said Gillespie.
Party conventions tend to favor more conservative candidates and can produce surprising results. Last year, GOP delegates picked the ultra-conservative E.W. Jackson as the party's lieutenant governor candidate and the political novice lost badly in the general election. Del. Bob Marshall, the General Assembly's most outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage, lost by less than a percentage point to former Gov. Jim Gilmore during the 2008 convention.
Republicans are hoping President Barack Obama's sagging popularity will help them gain the six U.S. Senate seats required to grab control of the chamber. Warner however, is an early favorite to keep his seat.
Warner recently kicked off a 14-event re-election campaign tour and has begun running statewide TV ads. At a stop in Richmond, Warner said he's prepared to rebut "cookie cutter" attacks on his record regardless of who wins Saturday.