By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010; A06
RICHMOND -- Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell called for a smaller, less intrusive federal government and an end to Democratic health-care reform in the Republican response to the State of the Union.
In a presentation that mimicked many of the trappings of President Obama's address, McDonnell delivered his speech in front of a packed audience of about 250 family members, friends and donors in the state's historic Capitol.
McDonnell walked down the aisle shaking hands as he entered the House of Delegates chamber, much as Obama did in the nation's Capitol. He was flanked by Cabinet members and some of his leading supporters, who punctuated his remarks with repeated and enthusiastic applause.
And special guests were on hand -- a pair of local schoolchildren and a state police helicopter pilot who was shot at during a manhunt for a mass killer last week in Appomattox.
The theatrics were a clear departure from other recent rebuttals, which have generally been delivered alone in subdued settings. Last year, in response to Obama's address to a joint session of Congress, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) was widely criticized for delivering a flat speech from an empty room in his governor's mansion, a backdrop that did not seem to flatter him.
The congressional staffers and McDonnell advisers who organized this year's response -- which cost about $30,000 and was paid for by the Republican Governors Association and the political action committees of McDonnell and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) -- sought a more commanding and friendly venue.
"I'm never going to match the ambience of the halls of Congress and the president of the United States, the leader of the free world," McDonnell told reporters earlier Wednesday. "I thought it would be a nice venue to invite a fair number of people so that they could hear the speech, to have a better backdrop than just a talking head on camera."
National Republicans chose McDonnell to deliver their response because of the way he campaigned and has governed so far: as a problem-solver who could appeal to Democrats and independents by talking about jobs and the economy.
In his speech, McDonnell echoed many of those themes, laying out a Republican vision for creating jobs, expanding energy opportunities and defining the role of government. McDonnell cited an expanding federal government for threatening the nation's ability to create jobs as well as "our very liberty and prosperity."
"The circumstances of our time demand that we reconsider and restore the proper, limited role of government at every level," he said to loud applause in an echo of remarks he made at his inauguration two weeks ago.
McDonnell said Republicans shared Democrats' desire for health-care reform but not their solutions. He said the Republican version of reform would allow families and businesses to buy insurance policies across state lines -- a provision included in Democratic efforts -- and end frivolous lawsuits against doctors and hospitals.
McDonnell has long praised Obama for his support of charter schools, and he did so again Wednesday night. He also applauded the president's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, although he said that Republicans are concerned about recent steps the government has taken regarding terrorism suspects.
While Republicans in Richmond reveled in the moment, Democrats continued to criticize McDonnell for giving the speech while failing to provide more guidance on how to close the multibillion-dollar budget shortfall that Virginia faces.
"He's going to give a response having been in office for two weeks, on a country that goes from sea to shining sea," said Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond). "He's going to be talking about a budget that has a nearly trillion-dollar deficit. He's going to be talking about, potentially, wars in foreign countries. He's had enough time to be able to talk to us about the State of the Union. But he hasn't had enough time to talk to tell me and the 9th Senatorial District or my colleagues on this floor about $4 billion in cuts?"
House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) said he was invited to attend the speech late in the day through a personal call from McDonnell. "It may be a little late, but I'm not offended," Armstrong said.
McDonnell was the third Virginian to deliver the response to the State of the Union in the past five years. Former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) gave it in 2006, just after he took office, and U.S. Sen. James Webb (D) delivered it in 2007.