RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - There's been no free path to potential victory for Barbara Comstock as she tries to win the Republican primary contest next Saturday for the 10th Congressional District in northern Virginia.
The front-runner has the blessing of most Republican elders and has already raised an impressive $760,000 in her bid to replace retiring incumbent Frank Wolf.
But she's also encountered sharp elbows from some tea party rivals for not being sufficiently conservative. Republican leaders have tried to tamp down these attacks, but with little success.
"They feel she's the anointed one and no one should stand in her way," said Howie Lind, a former Navy commander and one of Comstock's opponents. Lind has blasted Comstock for voting for President Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, as well as for supposedly supporting expanding Medicaid eligibility, which Comstock has voted against multiple times.
Prince William County Delegate Bob Marshall, an outspoken social conservative also in the race, has questioned Comstock's qualifications and dismissed party leadership's support of her candidacy.
"They want a woman to counter this, 'we're against women thing'" said Marshall.
Comstock campaign manager Susan Falconer said the attacks are in response to Comstock's leads in recent polls.
"It's been sad to see that the other campaigns have responded with increasingly negative and more desperate attacks," said Falconer.
The tenor of the primary contest stands in contrast to the unified front presented by state Republican lawmakers in blocking Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe's efforts to expand Medicaid eligibility. But it also underscores the continuing intra-party tensions between the establishment wing of the party and its more conservative factions.
Last year, Republicans were split over a transportation spending package that included tax increases, but this year almost all Republicans have toed the party line in opposing Medicaid expansion. Some of the tea party and conservative groups that were critical of House Speaker William J. Howell last year over the transportation bill are now praising his leadership.
"There's nothing like playing defense to unify a party," said Stephen Farnsworth, political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. "But when you're competing for a nomination you're no longer playing defense."
There are efforts to upset establishment favorites in other primaries, including U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's re-election bid and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie's race for the U.S. Senate.
Like many political observers, Farnsworth says tea party challengers aren't likely to win their races but can still score a victory in pushing the Republican party rightward.
"The odds are going to favor the establishment candidate in all of these races, but if you're a tea party activist you're never going to find a better opportunity to be heard," he said.
The 10th District sprawls from tony Beltway suburbs through Loudoun and parts of Prince William counties out to the Shenandoah Valley. Republicans are having a so-called firehouse primary in which polling will take place at a handful of polling places around the district. The winner will face Democratic Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust in the general election.
Other Republicans for the nomination are Stephen Hollingshead, an official in former President George W. Bush's administration; Marc Savitt, president of the National Association of Independent Housing Professionals; and Rob Wasinger, a former congressional aide.
Last week, Howell and several other House Republicans sent Lind a letter asking him to withdraw radio ads accusing Comstock of supporting Medicaid expansion, saying they were untrue and "crosses the line."
But Lind said he stands by his ads and isn't concerned with upsetting party leaders.
"A war is raging," Lind said. "People are not happy with the party."