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McDonnell walks fine line with conservative General Assembly

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RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell met with Republican members of the General Assembly more than 60 times in the past month — from formal meetings to glitzy social gatherings at the Executive Mansion — and he often cautioned them to exercise restraint.

McDonnell warned his fellow Republicans to limit their socially conservative legislation and focus on job creation and the state budget, according to legislators. Otherwise, he said, they risked miring the session in needless disputes that would not benefit the GOP. He even signaled which bills he would support, a departure from previous practice.

“We know what he meant,” said Sen. Bill Stanley (Franklin), a conservative Republican from Southside Virginia who attended some of the gatherings.

But apparently not everyone took his words to heart. The increasingly influential conservative wing of McDonnell’s party — which now controls the state government in Richmond — has swiftly taken on abortion, adoption and guns. And no initiative was more politically perilous than the ultrasound bill softened last week after ferocious opposition that stretched beyond Virginia’s borders.

The governor moved quickly to limit any lasting political damage to his national profile, but scrutiny of socially conservative legislation united Democrats and bore out McDonnell’s concerns. That legislative blunder also underscored McDonnell’s quandary: how to strike a balance between the interests of his Virginia Republican allies and his own practical political needs.

McDonnell is a potential vice presidential contender, and national Republicans are counting on him to deliver Virginia — a swing state in recent years — to GOP presidential and U.S. Senate candidates in November.

Bob Holsworth, a former professor at Virginia Commonwealth University with a deep knowledge of state politics, said the governor has been successful at managing conflicting goals. “McDonnell is a national figure,’’ Holsworth said. “He’s simultaneously running two campaigns: one for his budget and other priorities and one a silent campaign for the vice presidency.’’

McDonnell declined a request for an interview, and he has been careful not to be critical of Republican lawmakers.

“What I would say is, it’s absolutely false to say there’s been an overreach,’’ McDonnell told reporters last week. “The story of this session will be what I said it would be a month and half ago: We’re going to create more opportunities and more jobs.’’

In the middle

McDonnell, who was once considered one of the most conservative legislators in the state House of Delegates, has surprised his critics by largely governing from the middle, as he campaigned. He has worked to shore up the state’s economy, ease traffic congestion and boost education opportunities, lobbying legislators on such priorities as his first two-year budget (as opposed to the two-year budget he inherited from his Democratic predecessor in 2010).

But social issues have yielded the most-intense debates and garnered the most attention. The ultrasound legislation, for instance, drew the ire and ridicule of left-leaning cable shows and late-night comedians after it became clear that the bill would require women seeking an abortion to undergo a vaginal probe. McDonnell first backed the bill but later said he hadn’t known all the details.

Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University, said McDonnell has spent his first two years as governor trying to strike a middle ground between conservatives and independents as he keeps an eye on his image.

“He’s had a tough balancing act,’’ he said. “But that’s his style.’’

As governor and head of the Republican Governors Association, McDonnell has developed a national following. He appears regularly on national news programs and headlines Lincoln Day dinners in swing states, balancing his centrist persona with his conservative roots.

But observers say that balance could be jeopardized by the General Assembly, where Republican leaders have set the agenda this session, including lifting a one-a-month limit on handgun purchases and implementing adoption guidelines that critics say discriminate against gay people.

Meanwhile, national Democrats have accused him of advancing a socially conservative agenda as he campaigns for GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor.

McDonnell is pushing more than 100 bills this legislative session, but his aides and allies complain about a lack of media attention to some of his priorities, such as proposals to pump $2 billion into the state pension system and to make government more efficient. The governor and senior staff members have become defensive as Democrats and the media have focused attention on legislative Republicans’ socially conservative measures.

McDonnell has said that 97 percent of the General Assembly’s bills have been about issues he is emphasizing. To highlight his point, McDonnell issued a news release a few weeks ago in which he focused on the victories of some of his bills, and he cut a video to explain the session’s important issues. He did not mention social issues in either.

“His preference is consistent with what he ran on: ‘Bob’s for Jobs,’ ’’ Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said. “He respects the social agenda, but he thinks jobs and economic development are the priorities.’’

Some political observers say the General Assembly’s apparent move to the right might be good for McDonnell’s political future. They say McDonnell’s conservative bona fides would help Romney, who some Republicans say is not a true conservative.

“He needs a conservative to help him bolster his conservative credentials,’’ national Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.

The Senate takeover

In his first two years as governor, McDonnell had been frustrated by a Democratic-controlled Senate. His plans to expand charter schools, reform the retirement system and divert revenue to ease traffic congestion all died at the hands of Senate Democrats.

But Democrats were a buffer, too. They shielded him from conservative bills that easily passed the House but routinely died in the Senate. He never complained.

After November’s elections, Republicans have a history-making 2-to-1 majority in the House and control of an evenly divided Senate because Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) can cast tie-breaking votes. It’s only the second time since the Civil War that the party has controlled the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion.

McDonnell tried to set the tone immediately after the elections. He preached moderation to both sides in public statements ahead of what is considered to be the most important session of his term, the session in which legislators are considering his first two-year budget.

“To members of the majority, I say: ‘Don’t be arrogant. Don’t overreach,’ ” he stated in his State of the Commonwealth address to the General Assembly.

But McDonnell has had to spend time behind the scenes reining in fellow Republicans, who continue to ask him to back highly divisive bills.

Del. Ben L. Cline (R-Rockbridge), co-chairman of the Conservative Caucus, which recently had breakfast with McDonnell at the mansion, said he is counting on the governor’s support, although he knows McDonnell does not agree with all of the group’s goals. “We’re working together so we can pursue a conservative agenda,’’ he said.

Bolling, who regularly attends daily Senate Republican caucus meetings, said he and McDonnell have conveyed a message of restraint. “They don’t always listen,” said Bolling, who added that the dissension could put McDonnell in a precarious situation.

“He set his agenda. That hasn’t changed,” Bolling said. “But you have 140 members, and they all have their own agenda.”

Heading into elections last fall, Republicans campaigned on pocketbook issues, such as job creation, and said they didn’t want to get tripped up by social issues during this year’s session. They also worried about turning off crucial independent voters. But when they arrived in Richmond, GOP legislators responded to the pent-up demand to pass bills that had been stymied for years.

House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said McDonnell has told him, “I’m doing what I can” to restrain the push on social issues.

This year, in a significant move, McDonnell announced which bills he intended to sign, a break from past practice. On the one hand, he signaled his willingness to sign the adoption legislation and the bill to repeal the one-a-month limit on handgun purchases. On the other, he expressed opposition to two particularly controversial abortion and gun bills, and they died.

Republican lawmakers may yet ask McDonnell to sign highly charged bills that would ban state subsidies for poor women to abort fetuses with serious birth defects and would require voters to show photo identification at the polls.

“I don’t think he had much effect,’’ Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said. “I’m not seeing that they’re listening to him.”

Staff writer Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.

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