WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (AP) — Gov. Bob McDonnell had one last turn on the national stage as host of the weekend midsummer retreat of U.S. governors as a potential vice presidential running mate for Republican Mitt Romney. Then President Barack Obama upstaged him.
For nearly a year, McDonnell’s National Governors Association host team raised $1 million in private cash and organized a detailed itinerary of high-profile panels.
The bipartisan gathering with national press attention gave McDonnell and other Republican governors the perfect opportunity to score points for Romney and flay Obama on health reform, a torpid economy, and mounting federal debt without looking shrill or partisan.
So Obama bracketed the NGA weekend with five Virginia campaign stops Friday and Saturday, check-mating McDonnell in his big moment.
Speculation about the fresh-faced, socially conservative governor on a national ticket began the night in November 2009 he won the election in a rout, an abrupt turnaround in a state where Obama had led a triumphant Democratic sweep one year before.
With polls showing that nearly two in three Virginians approve of his performance, the new champion of the Republican right stayed quiet about his leanings in the GOP presidential primary until the day his friend, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, folded his campaign.
McDonnell endorsed Romney just before January’s GOP primary in South Carolina, where conservatives skeptical of the former Massachusetts governor who instituted a government-backed health care plan gave Newt Gingrich an upset victory. McDonnell began traveling the country and appearing on television as a Romney proxy. They seemed a good fit with McDonnell lending Romney credibility among the Republican right in the South, particularly Virginia.
The weeks that followed were unkind to McDonnell. The thoroughly Republican General Assembly was on the verge of passing a bill that would have mandated vaginally invasive ultrasound exams for women seeking abortions. Virginia, its Republicans and McDonnell became a national punch line after television comedians, including “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” lampooned the bill. Hundreds of outraged women gathered on Capitol Square to protest to the measure.
By March, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that McDonnell’s job-approval rating had slid from a rosy 62 percent in October to 53 percent. The same poll showed that adding Romney to the ticket did nothing to diminish Obama’s slight statewide lead over Romney.
By June, another unflattering distraction was at McDonnell’s doorstep. When the University of Virginia’s board of visitors — a panel governors appoint — abruptly fired university president Theresa Sullivan without warning, students, faculty and alumni rebelled. McDonnell stayed out of the imbroglio until embarrassing national news coverage forced his hand and he gave board members a deadline to either resolve the poisonous dilemma or tender their resignations. The board reversed itself and reinstated Sullivan, but the prestigious image of the school Thomas Jefferson founded lay trampled.
Last weekend offered McDonnell another chance to burnish his profile as host to the National Governors Association summer conference in the state’s restored Colonial capital in Williamsburg. It shaped up as a national forum where he and other Republican governors could advance the national debate against the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare” in GOP parlance. Even Democratic governors such as Delaware’s Jack Markel voiced concerns about potential costs under the ACA of expanding Medicaid, the federal-state program that helps pay for health care for the aged, needy and disabled, and low-income families with children.
So Obama bigfooted the NGA event. Three of his five rallies were within an hour’s drive of Williamsburg, and two of those were in McDonnell’s old Virginia Beach and Richmond neighborhoods.
At a news conference, McDonnell nervously laughed off the suggestion that the president’s plans were a snub, calling it “a coincidence.” But senior aides said privately that McDonnell was not the least surprised by Obama’s flanking maneuver.
“Sure, coincidences happen. But I’m just guessing they are few and far between in presidential scheduling,” said J. Tucker Martin, McDonnell’s top spokesman.
George Mason University political science professor Mark Rozell said Obama had nothing to gain from a gathering of American governors — about two-thirds of them Republicans — and was happy to spoil McDonnell’s last major audition before Romney picks his running mate leading into next month’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
“It’s the wonder of the modern presidency that he can make news any time, any place he wants. At his choosing, he can upstage any governor or group of governors,” Rozell said.
The buzz about McDonnell has ebbed over the summer, though Romney has kept his running mate search leak-proof. Rozell said one signal that McDonnell is unlikely to make the ticket was his appointment earlier this month to head the national convention’s platform committee.
“All the evidence seems to suggest that McDonnell is not at the top of the list anymore, and now they might not even be vetting him,” Rozell said.
But that doesn’t mean McDonnell wouldn’t have a role in a Romney administration, he added.
“Mitt Romney owes Bob McDonnell,” he said.
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