Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling has a hard time eating lunch in public these days.
Lately, he says, people keep coming up to him and asking about the governor's race. And many of them tell him that they wish he hadn't dropped out of the running for the Executive Mansion, effectively narrowing voters' choice to Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli or Democrat businessman Terry McAuliffe.
Bolling feels their pain, perhaps even more than his supporters. The political ups and downs of the Cuccinelli and McAuliffe campaigns in the five weeks since he announced his decision not to run as an independent have given him second thoughts.
"If I have one regret about the decision it's that I wish I had waited longer," he said in an interview.
"Because if I had waited longer I think we may have (seen) the direction these campaigns were going and that may have made it easier to raise more money."
Money -- specifically the $10 million to $15 million Bolling believed he needed to run a winning independent campaign -- was a primary factor in his decision March 12 to forgo an independent challenge.
Since, Cuccinelli and McAuliffe have suffered wounds, most of them self-inflicted, and exploited by rivals in a campaign that has turned nasty in its earliest stages.
Democrats have dinged Cuccinelli for his initial failure to disclose stock holdings in Star Scientific, a former tobacco company turned dietary supplement maker that sued the state over a tax assessment. Its CEO has showered the attorney general and Gov. Bob McDonnell with thousands in gifts and political contributions. Under pressure, Cuccinelli recused his office from the tax case and recently divested his stock holdings in the company.
Bolling said the Star Scientific episode, which also involves a $15,000 gift from Star CEO Jonnie Williams to pay for catering at the wedding of McDonnell's daughter Cailin points to the need for elected officials to close the gap in the law that exempts gifts to immediate family members from being reported.
"If people give a gift (to a family member) in an official capacity ... the reality is they are probably giving that gift because of their relationship with me," said Bolling, who said he has disclosed gifts to family members. "If it's a personal friend, I think that is different, but it is very much of a gray area."
McDonnell has said Williams and his wife are personal friends to him and his wife, Maureen. Cuccinelli's camp characterized the attorney general, who reported receiving the use of a lake house and boat -- as having "a friendly relationship" with Williams.
Republicans have countered with sideswipes at McAuliffe's claims surrounding GreenTech Automotive -- the Mississippi-based electric car manufacturer that the Democrat touted as evidence of his job-creating skills. McAuliffe quietly left the company last December, only publicly acknowledging his departure after a news report in March.
McAuliffe was also put on the defensive last week when Cuccinelli released his tax returns and the GOP dared the millionaire McLean businessman to do the same, much as Democrats had called on wealthy former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to disclose his income and tax rate during the presidential election.
"If you look at this campaign right now it's rapidly becoming a spiraling race to the bottom," Bolling said. "A couple of months of constant name-calling back and forth has done nothing to elevate the discourse in the public," he said, referring to a recent poll that showed the percentage of undecided voters being greater than support for either man.
"I don't think I've ever seen a poll where 'undecided' is winning."
Bolling said the campaign so far has validated the notion that the opportunity for an independent candidate is bigger than he thought it was. But that doesn't mean he's about to reconsider.
If somebody called him up and offered millions in support, "I may take a look," he said. But short of winning the lottery, Bolling doesn't expect such a windfall.
"Besides, I might have other uses for that money, like preparing for retirement," he said. "I'm enjoying not being part of that fray."
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