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McDonnell Takes to National Stage

RICHMOND, Va. — Rick Perry, who joined the presidential race Saturday, isn’t the only GOP governor whose national profile is about to take off.

He’ll be joined by Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, who will replace him as chairman of the Republican Governors Association — a perch that is all but guaranteed to boost McDonnell’s political fortunes by providing a national platform and access to a fundraising network that would be useful in a future run for higher office.

With solid poll ratings as a swing state governor, McDonnell is already drawing attention as a possible GOP prospect for vice president in 2012. And in an extended interview in his office here, the Virginia governor expressed interest in the No. 2 spot on the national ticket.

“I’d be very interested. It is a swing state. I’m not asking for the call. I’m not looking for the call. As I’ve said many times, I’ve got the best job in America,” he told POLITICO. “But I think anybody who is in public life, if a presidential nominee called him and said, ‘I need your help to win,’ it would be a tremendous honor. … We’ll see. It’s going to be seven, eight, nine months before any of these decisions are made.”

McDonnell, who was elected in 2009, also left the door open to a 2016 run for president.

“I’ll be looking for a job in January 2014, but that’s an eternity in politics,” he said, smiling, an acknowledgment of the fact that Virginia governors can only serve one term. “I’ve got to do in four years what most governors get eight years to do if they’re doing a good job. So we’re just laser-focused on (getting) lots of results. By that time, my kids will all be out of college and my life will be a little bit different in 2016. So I don’t know. It’s so far down the road, I’m not focused on it.”

Perhaps, but the New Hampshire GOP announced Friday that McDonnell will be the keynote speaker at the party’s annual fundraiser on Sept. 26 in Concord. About 600 people are expected, including four to six current presidential candidates. The appearance will mark his first visit to New Hampshire since taking office.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who chaired McDonnell’s campaign in 2009, said voters now think of McDonnell when they think of Virginia Republicans.

“I’d be surprised, given the nature of Virginia, his military experience [he retired from the Army Reserves as lieutenant colonel], his strong record in government and the fact that he’s so popular in such a swing state, I’d be surprised if the Republican nominee doesn’t look his way and consider him for his running mate,” Gillespie said, stressing that he was not speaking for McDonnell.

In his nearly two years in office, the Virginia governor has carefully positioned himself as a pragmatic conservative who is fixated on job creation (not the social issues that were important to his early political rise) and capable of working with Democrats to get big things done. After some early stumbles in 2010, his approval rating stood at 55 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll released in late June and 62 percent in a Washington Post poll from May.

McDonnell has already been involved in RGA activities, motivated by the committee’s critical assistance to his own campaign — the RGA spent more than $6 million in independent expenditures on his behalf.

“He wanted to really return the favor,” said RGA executive director Phil Cox, who managed McDonnell’s 2009 campaign.

Cox guessed that McDonnell has made 10 out-of-state trips since becoming vice chair at the group’s winter meeting in San Diego last November.

With one of the top major donor programs of any committee — there are more than 600 participants in an executive roundtable that requires donors to give more than $25,000 each — the post of RGA chief is an attractive proposition for ambitious governors. Among those who have recently held the chairmanship: Mitt Romney, Haley Barbour and Rick Perry.

McDonnell is expected to officially take over sometime this week after Perry steps down.

“It’s a natural continuation of the path that he’s been on,” said Cox, who remains his closest political adviser. “That’s an excellent platform for anyone who is potentially looking at future opportunities.”

As for the current presidential contest, McDonnell thinks the GOP ought to nominate a governor in 2012, but said he plans to take a “wait-and-see” approach before wading into the contentious nomination fight.

“This is the most wide open race I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve been in office,” he said. “Nobody’s breaking out of the pack. … I just think with all the problems that ail America, … a guy that’s been a successful governor is who you want.”

McDonnell said Perry will “absolutely” capture some support among the corps of Republican governors.

“Rick is well respected among Republican governors for good reason,” McDonnell said. “One, he’s just a heck of a nice guy. Number two, he’s got an impeccable record of job creation in Texas. … Three, you just look at a pathway to the nomination. He’s respected by tea party activists as well as evangelicals. Fourth, when he’s talking about America and federalism and free enterprise, he can stir up a crowd. He’s good. And he’s governed the second-largest state in the country for 10 years. He’s got a great pathway, and he’s got the passion to take on these liberal and irresponsible economic policies of President [Barack] Obama but do it in a way that has some Southern gentility to it, which means he’ll appeal to independents.”

He added that he also has complimentary things to say about Romney.

For now, McDonnell said his own primary political focus is on trying to win control of Virginia’s Democratic-controlled Senate this November.

McDonnell’s non-confrontational political style stands in marked contrast to New Jersey’s Chris Christie, the other Republican governor elected in 2009. But, calling the high-profile Christie a friend, McDonnell said the two men are of the same mind on the issues.

“He’s got a little different style, but in terms of our view of the world, of how you manage the finances of your state, how you manage retirement systems and things like that, we think an awful lot alike,” he said.

McDonnell’s approach places him at odds, at least stylistically, with his soon-to-be Democratic Governors Association counterpart, Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland. The neighboring governor has sharply criticized the GOP agenda, frequently taking on other governors by name. When asked about O’Malley — who is frequently mentioned as a Democratic presidential prospect — McDonnell simply said he doesn’t plan to start throwing out more red meat after he assumes his new post.

He went out of his way to praise state Senate Democrats who worked with him during the past legislative session to unanimously pass a balanced budget with no tax increases. He explained that they had little political incentive to help him govern, and he contrasted the scene in Richmond to the one in Washington.

“You try to find common ground,” he said. “You don’t shrink from your principles, but if you don’t ever make it personal, you can make friends. … That’s the way we govern here.”

McDonnell said he will publicly announce new budget projections that show a surplus this Thursday: “It’s gonna be a big number.”

In the same conversation, though, McDonnell praised Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for his aggressive — and highly divisive — efforts to balance his state budget. McDonnell, who appeared at a fundraiser with Walker in Wisconsin two weeks ago, predicted the first-term Wisconsin governor will become more and more popular as his reforms take effect, and noted that the fights being waged by Republican governors in places like Ohio and Florida excite major donors. [Unlike other party committees, the governors associations can take money from corporations.]

Going forward, McDonnell predicted Obama, the first Democrat to win Virginia since 1964, will lose the state during his reelection bid next year.

“It’s going to be a tough road to hoe for the president,” he said. “His message is more taxes, more regulation, more unionization and more government. That’s not gonna sell in most places in Virginia.”

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