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GOP picks Virginia governor to answer State of the Union

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010; A07

RICHMOND -- National Republicans searching for a way to maintain their recent winning streak have tapped Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to deliver his party's high-profile response to President Obama's State of the Union address Wednesday.

Republicans are eager to hold up McDonnell, inaugurated just last week, as the new model of Republican candidate: a moderate problem-solver who can appeal to Democrats and independents by talking about jobs, the economy and other kitchen-table issues.

Unlike past GOP candidates in Virginia and elsewhere, McDonnell stayed mostly silent in his campaign on almost every bedrock conservative issue -- abortion, guns, the sanctity of marriage, school choice -- that had served as the foundation for his political career.

In a statement issued Thursday, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised McDonnell for his focus on the economy.

"As the American people continue to ask, 'where are the jobs,' Gov. McDonnell has offered common-sense economic policies in stark contrast to Washington Democrats' job-killing agenda," Boehner said.

The choice of McDonnell is reminiscent of his Democratic predecessor's experience in 2006, when newly elected Gov. Timothy M. Kaine delivered the response to President George W. Bush's State of the Union address after winning in what was still considered a conservative Southern state. The speech helped put Kaine on the path to becoming Democratic National Party chairman. But four years later, McDonnell and other Republicans swept Virginia's statewide offices.

"I look forward to discussing positive solutions to our shared challenges," McDonnell said in a statement. "That's what we ran on in the campaign, and it's what we are now busy implementing here in Richmond."

McDonnell will be the third Virginian to deliver a response to the State of the Union address in five years. U.S. Sen. James Webb (D) gave it in 2007.

In Richmond, most Democrats were careful not to criticize McDonnell for a task that their own leader took on just four years ago. But Virginia Democratic Party Chairman C. Richard Cranwell questioned the timing of a partisan speech, since McDonnell needs to work with both parties to solve a potential $4.2 billion budget shortfall in the coming weeks.

"Under different economic times, I might say go ahead," he said. "Given the daunting task ahead, it will take all of us, working together."

GOP congressional leaders picked McDonnell even as two other newly victorious Republicans -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Scott Brown, who was just elected to the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts -- are also drawing attention. Republicans hope their wins signal a turnaround for the beleaguered party.

Boehner asked McDonnell to give the response while the two were attending an inaugural dinner at Mount Vernon nearly two weeks ago, when Brown's win seemed less than certain. Christie's victory was a boon for the GOP, but the unpopularity of his opponent, Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine, played a large role in the race.

Republicans are clamoring to duplicate McDonnell's success in the 2010 midterm elections and have invited him to speak at numerous events to explain his strategy. U.S. House Republicans have booked him for their annual member retreat, titled "Winning Back America," at the end of the month in Baltimore.

"Bob's positive message and common-sense, conservative solutions inspired millions of Virginians to support him, and I know that Americans will feel that same enthusiasm after watching him on Wednesday night," House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a statement.

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