The biggest winner of the SCC decision to switch from primary to convention has got to be Mark Obenshain. Rob Bell has been working quite hard so far and has rasied a lot of money. I saw Bell at the Fairfax County convention a few months back standing at the exit shaking hands.
The difference in their messages also explain why one is more taylor-made than another. Obenshain is running for AG as, in essence, Ken Cuccinelli's heir. He plans on being a principled conservative willing to do things like challenge the federal government and use the office in a more philosophical and constitutional sense. Bell is a straight-out law and order candidate. His record on crime in the Assembly is quite extensive, and someone once told me Rob Bell hasn't met a crime he doesn't want to increase punishmnet for. The law-and-order message was the tried and true way Republicans became attorney general from Jim Gilmore to Bob McDonnell. It is a message that most Republicans support and is an easier sell. Obenshain's more constitutional view of the office, more in-line with Cuccinelli, is probably more popular with the grassroots and folks that would take the time to go to a convention. It is certainly closer to the liberty movement voters that are quickly getting into the process.
And what about John Frey? It is undoubtable to me that Frey will really cause Bell problems. A lot of folks don't know, but Bell has pretty strong ties to Fairfax County through his mother who is a local activist in the area. Frey's campaign is supported by a lot of the in-exile Tom Davis people and the Pat Herrity crowd (they overlap). Frey has been around Fairfax politics for a long time and is well known in courthouses across the commonwealth. These people would have been logical Bell supporters, as far as I can tell (though not to a man of course). Some are equating him to Dave Foster but I think that is selling Frey a bit short. He's in his third 8-year term as Fairfax County Clerk of the Court, and is active across the state in the courthouse community. He has a lot more statewide contacts than Foster. But Bell needs every single Northern Virginia vote he can get to off-set the strength Obenshain will have in the conservative enclaves down south.
The other thing Mark Obenshain has that Ken Cuccinelli didn't have in 2009 was a more broad-based likability across the state. Ken has never backed away from a fight, but hasn't always been popular with the establishment either in Northern Virginia or Richmond. He worked outside of the Davis Machine and earned their mockery early on ("Kookinelli") and made waves in Richmond when he endorsed state senate primary challengers in 2007. Obenshain has much more of a broad-based popularity among everyone in the party and has not stepped on as many toes as Cuccinelli did at the same points in their careers. Don't get me wrong, Obenshain's record is great but his style is a littler more accommodating. This is important because Obenshain won't motivate as many detractors as Cuccienlli did. His daddy taught him well.
This race will not breakdown in the same geographical way the governor's race will (or even the LG race) because of the three both Obenshain (Harrisonburg) and Bell (Charlottesville) are not from huge population centers and thus are much more of a blank slate for voters in NoVA, Richmond, and Hampton Roads and you will see people backing candidates you might not think makes sense. I suspect Frey might even do better than people think in the more rural parts of the state where offices like Clerk of the Court hold more sway.
Right now, I give the favorite status to Obenshain. I was told Obenshain stickers were all over the convention and I get the feeling the grassroots are more inclined to him, the kind of grassroots that show up at a convention. But this will be a wide-open race. It would be even closer if Frey were not in because Northern Virginia would be completely up for grabs. Frey should do very well in Arlington, Falls Church, and Alexandria as well and if you combin that with strength in Fairfax and perhaps picking up support here and there where is contacts as Clerk will help, he could push this into a second ballot and then who knows what.
Bottom line? Obenshain is the favorite, Bell is incredibly hard working, and Frey will be more of a factor than people think. A convention will help Obenshain mightily, however. But Frey is a true wild card and nothing can be taken for granted.