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McDonnell as VP? Va. Governor Could Help, Hinder

McDonnell as VP? Va. Governor Could Help, Hinder

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - May 31, 2012


Ask Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell about his vice presidential ambitions and his answer is invariably, I have the best job in the world, one held by Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.

But that job ends in 2014, as Virginia law forbids its governors from serving two consecutive terms. And his record in that position -- leading a key swing state with high approval ratings and a record of increasing jobs and decreasing deficits -- makes him an attractive candidate. Plus, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, McDonnell has become a national party figurehead.

Some observers say McDonnell could even outperform Romney in talking about jobs and the economy, issues at the center of the presumptive nominee’s campaign and the foremost concern among voters. (Unemployment in Virginia dropped to 5.6 percent in April, down 1.7 percent since McDonnell took office in January 2010.) And he brings the military service and ties to conservative Christians that Romney lacks.

But his personal history of social conservatism -- ranging from a controversial graduate school thesis on family to the recent abortion-related ultrasound bill passed in Virginia -- may doom his prospects.

Earlier this week, McDonnell said he was not being vetted by Romney’s campaign and that he “absolutely” plans to finish his term as governor.

But among the long list of contenders, he has been the least bashful about his interest in being on the Republican ticket. The Virginia governor endorsed Romney in January, soon after his colleague and RGA predecessor, Rick Perry, dropped out of the race, and campaigned for him ahead of the South Carolina primary (which Romney lost to Newt Gingrich). He stumped for the former Massachusetts governor in Portsmouth earlier this month, where he touted the state’s low unemployment rate and business-friendly reputation. “Now, as good as that is, imagine how much better off we’re going to be with President Mitt Romney,” he said.

McDonnell often says he isn’t seeking the No. 2 job, though he’d consider it if asked to serve his country. But in those denials, he often mentions that he takes his role in the Romney campaign seriously, pledging to avidly fight to get the Republican candidate elected.

Perhaps his most vocal expression of interest can be found in ads McDonnell’s political action committee launched in the state to tout his record as governor. "Jobs and opportunity are thriving again. . . . Virginia is growing strong, and so is our future,” McDonnell says in the ad.

The spot was perceived not only as a vice presidential audition tape, but also an attempt to boost his image after he signed into law a bill requiring women to submit to an ultrasound before having an abortion.

McDonnell had set a legislative agenda based on economic and fiscal issues, and advised his conference against wading into social issues. Still, the legislature pushed through a bill in February requiring women to undergo a trans-vaginal ultrasound procedure, widely viewed as invasive and unnecessary, before having an abortion. McDonnell eventually watered down the measure, making the vaginal method optional, and said the law helps a mother make a fully informed decision on whether to abort.

The issue made national headlines and provided late-night comedians with material. In March, McDonnell’s approval ratings dropped five points to 53 percent -- still a healthy rating. His PAC began airing the positive ads in April, and McDonnell’s approval now stands at 56 percent, according to a May Washington Post poll that notes the governor has lost ground among independents and urban women. Seventy percent of independent voters said McDonnell’s name on the presidential ballot would not influence their choice.

The ultrasound bill wasn’t McDonnell’s only social controversy. As a 34-year-old graduate student at the evangelical Regent University, McDonnell wrote a thesis in which he said that women who work outside the home are “detrimental” to their families, and spoke out against homosexuality and living together and using contraception before marriage. During his gubernatorial run in 2009, the Washington Post reported on the thesis and noted that while serving in the General Assembly, McDonnell pushed some of the socially conservative policies he had outlined in it. The then-candidate dismissed the thesis as something he wrote “during the Reagan era and haven’t thought about in years.”

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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