Bob McDonnell tries to make it personal with Virginians
By: William C. Flook
Examiner Staff Writer
When Mitt Romney was in Richmond a month ago to stump for newly minted GOP gubernatorial nominee Bob McDonnell, they made a well-coifed, perfectly pinstriped pair on stage.
But Romney's own experiences provide a cautionary note for McDonnell's candidacy: The appearance of perfection can be a political liability.
Romney had a resume tailored for a presidential contender. And his square jaw, flawless family, and patrician bearing made him the top contender to knock off front-runner John McCain for the 2008 Republican nomination. But Romney ultimately struggled to connect with voters while gruff McCain and homespun Mike Huckabee found traction.
McDonnell seems similarly engineered for high office.
His strengths are both biographical and geographical. Hailing from both Hampton Roads and Fairfax County, he can call the state's two biggest population centers home. Before serving as attorney general historically a springboard to the governor's nomination McDonnell was an Army officer, local prosecutor and state legislator. He's never been the subject of any real scandal, nor has he ever lost an election.
What he lacks, though, is the folksy, down-home manner and biography of his opponent, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, from rural Bath County. And the Deeds campaign hopes to use that disparity to drive a wedge between McDonnell and voters, framing him as telegenic, yet inauthentic, just as Romney's opponents once did.
"The Bob McDonnell that we're seeing right now is the made-for-TV Bob McDonnell," said Joe Abbey, Deeds' campaign manager. "It's not the true him."
The Republican shrugged off the concept of "two Bobs" in a recent interview with The Examiner.
"I am the same person I've been for 18 years in elected office," he said. "I'm a happy, positive, friendly conservative, but I'm also a pro-free enterprise, pro-life, pro-economic development conservative. These are all consistent."
McDonnell has been the heir-apparent to the GOP nomination since he won election as attorney general four years ago. His strong prospects and conservative pedigree have energized a state party that's grown accustomed of late to being on the wrong end of electoral blowouts.
But despite being in public life for nearly two decades, McDonnell remains an unknown quantity to many.
Supporters say what you see is what you get an authentic man who hews closely to principle and speaks his mind. For all the talk of him shifting to the center for his race with Deeds, McDonnell has yet to compromise on what backers say is an solidly conservative platform.
"You rarely meet someone as sincere as Bob," said Del. Sal Iaquinto, McDonnell's former legislative aide who succeeded him in his Virginia Beach House of Delegates seat. "He's real. The Bob you talk to is Bob McDonnell. There is no mystery behind him."
Democrats are endeavoring to paint McDonnell as callous, for opposing $125 million in jobless benefits from the Obama stimulus package; hard-line, for his universal opposition to abortion; and even intolerant, for his association with televangelist Pat Robertson.
Though McDonnell is Catholic and graduated from University of Notre Dame before his military service, he earned his law degree from Robertson's Regent University in 1989. And that part of his biography is "one slightly jarring note that Democrats will try to take advantage of," said political analyst Bob Holworth. It's also a dangerous topic for them, he said, evidenced in the "woefully unsuccessful" 1990s assault on the religious right.
"The difficulty for Democrats," he said, "is they became seen as people who just didn't like religious people in general."
Robertson aided McDonnell's first campaign in 1991, in which the then-greenhorn Virginia Beach prosecutor unexpectedly defeated Del. Glenn McClanan for a seat in the Virginia House. In a 2007 appearance on Robertson's "700 Club," McDonnell said his time at Regent gave him "the insight into what our founders believed about government and about their view of the Constitution that I am carrying forth on the job today."
But at a time when Virginia is bleeding jobs, economic issues are likely to trump the culture wars, said University of Richmond political science professor Dan Palazzolo.
"A lot of this election is probably going to be about the economy, and the management of the state under [Gov. Tim] Kaine and [President Barack] Obama," he said. "I don't know how much the social issues are going to play into the campaign."
McDonnell dismisses the idea that he will have to distance himself from his socially conservative positions.
"It's not only overstated, it's just not correct," he told The Examiner.
He believes that the notion of his need to posture as a centrist is a media fiction.
"There are some journalists who I think believe that a conservative [is] somebody who is only talking about the issues of life and marriage," he said, "because they don't understand the conservative cause, which is a holistic view of limited government, an advocacy of freedom and free enterprise, as well as embracing traditional values."
Indeed, while McDonnell has touted endorsements from some of the Cabinet of former Gov. Mark Warner, a professed "radical centrist," he hasn't diluted conservative stances on taxes, gun rights and human life.
In an state widely regarded as "purple" not aligned with any one party both candidates in a governor's race could be expected to slide toward the political middle. McDonnell said his opponent, Deeds, is trying to hide a record out of step with the center. Deeds recently emerged victorious from a costly, acerbic three-way primary.
"What Deeds is trying to do, after moving far left in his primary, is trying to reclaim the mantle of being a centrist, because he thinks it worked for Mark Warner and [Gov.] Tim Kaine."