By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - Virginia Republicans on Saturday formally nominated Ken Cuccinelli for governor in the nation's marquee 2013 political race, and the conservative attorney general wasted no time reminding voters of the scandals facing President Barack Obama.
"I am not a true conservative because I have not been investigated by the IRS," joked Cuccinelli, referring to the controversy that has engulfed the federal tax collection agency over its targeting of conservative Tea Party groups.
Cuccinelli has strong support from Tea Party activists, who are incensed by the Internal Revenue Service's actions, which Obama has called "outrageous" and vowed to investigate.
Northern Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, is home to thousands of government workers who helped swing the state to Obama in the November election.
But Republicans hope the troubles of the president - which also include the handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department secretly obtaining the phone records of some Associated Press reporters - will rub off on Cuccinelli's opponent, Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic Party chairman and fundraiser.
Cuccinelli took a swipe at McAuliffe on Saturday for his long political service in the nation's capital, saying his opponent knew Washington, but "I know Virginia."
Virginia has twice voted for Obama but has a Republican governor. In addition to the Washington suburbs, which tend to vote Democratic, Virginia has large rural areas that are more conservative and Republican, making it a swing state.
This is a quiet year for U.S. voters and Virginia's election in November is the only competitive governor's race. In New Jersey, polls show Republican Governor Chris Christie holds a comfortable lead over his Democratic opponent, state Senator Barbara Buono.
Cuccinelli faces his own political headwind from a growing political scandal involving Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.
Both the attorney general and the governor have acknowledged taking gifts from Jonnie Williams Sr., the chief executive of Star-Scientific, a Richmond area company that makes dietary supplements. The gifts included $15,000 in catering expenses for the wedding of the governor's daughter.
The FBI is looking into whether the governor's office helped advance Williams' business interests in return for the gifts.
Cuccinelli has reported $18,000 in gifts from Williams, including a $1,500 catered Thanksgiving dinner and stays at the same lake vacation home that McDonnell and his family visited. But Cuccinelli said he reported the gifts, as required by law.
Cuccinelli also has held stock in Star Scientific valued at one time at about $20,000. He has since sold the stock at a loss.
In his acceptance speech on Saturday, Cuccinelli did not mention the scandal. Instead, he stressed the familiar Republican themes of tax cuts, jobs, small government and opposition to abortion.
Views of Obama could play a significant role in the outcome of the race, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
"All eyes will be on Virginia to read and misread the impact of President Obama's popularity or lack of popularity," he said.
The race between Cuccinelli and McAuliffe is shaping up to be close and costly.
Already more than $11 million has poured in to the candidates, and this could easily be the most expensive gubernatorial election in Virginia history.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday gave McAuliffe a 43 percent to 38 percent lead over Cuccinelli in a survey of 1,286 registered voters.
In contrast, a Washington Post poll published on May 4 gave Cuccinelli a lead among registered voters of 46 percent to 41 percent.
(Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Jackie Frank)