In a Virginia Beach courtroom more than a decade ago, Robert F. McDonnell helped a young woman on the witness stand recount years of sexual abuse. Her name may have faded from his memory, but he has never forgotten her sobs or the scars on her wrists from cutting and scratching and a suicide attempt.
"I can't remember her name, but I can see her face," McDonnell said. "She was very dysfunctional . . . and all the doctors told us it was the result of sustained sexual abuse. That woman was never going to be the same because of what that child molester did."
McDonnell, then an assistant prosecutor, won the conviction that sent the woman's stepfather to prison. But cases like hers left him convinced that Virginia needed to be tougher on sexual predators and offer more resources for victims -- changes he could not make in a courtroom but could fight for as a lawmaker.
So after two years as an assistant prosecutor, McDonnell was elected to Virginia's House of Delegates in 1991, eventually pushing for a victim's bill of rights and increased compensation for crime victims. Now, at 51, the Republican wants to become Virginia's next attorney general, a statewide office he sees as critically influential in guiding lawmakers as they weigh public safety reforms and craft the state's criminal code.
"It gives you a great platform to get major policy changes accomplished in public safety and litigation reform," McDonnell said. "The AG is the key guy people look to get those things done."
McDonnell, a retired Army officer and a partner at Huff, Poole & Mahoney in Virginia Beach, has painted himself as a law-and-order candidate, calling himself a "drug dealer's worst nightmare" and running TV ads featuring slamming prison doors. He has made reform of sexual predator laws a centerpiece of his campaign, saying he would push for 25-year mandatory sentences for people convicted of sexually assaulting children. A second offense would bring a life sentence. He thinks sex offenders who aren't in prison should be monitored using Global Positioning System tracking and wants the state to consider random checks to see whether sex offenders are sending updated information to Virginia's online registry.
McDonnell supports the death penalty, thinks mid-level drug dealers should spend more time in prison and said he would expand a state program to target methamphetamine production.
Supporters such as House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) said McDonnell's longtime focus on criminal justice and judicial issues as a legislator makes him a natural choice to become Virginia's top lawyer. McDonnell, who chairs the Courts of Justice Committee and the state's Sex Offender Task Force, has sponsored legislation to toughen penalties for drunken-driving offenses and crafted rules requiring judges to be evaluated by jurors, lawyers and retired judges during their terms.
"If you look at Virginia's judicial system, Bob McDonnell has had a huge impact," Griffith said. "Bob always had an aggressive agenda. He's always carried like 30 bills, mostly dealing with law enforcement."
But some critics, including Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), said that although they don't question McDonnell's intellect, they do have concerns about his conservative views on some social issues.
"I respect Bob's legislative ability. I respect his sharp mind," Moran said. "But he's going to use the attorney general's office to advance a right-wing political agenda."
Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax) echoed Moran's sentiments. "My concern is a drive to legislate, morally, what people's lives should be," she said.
McDonnell, who received a $36,000 contribution from television evangelist Pat Robertson, does not shy from his political leanings. His campaign highlights his record of "conservative leadership."
McDonnell opposes same-sex marriage. He also was a leader of the antiabortion movement in the General Assembly, sponsoring legislation, which passed the Assembly, that would require a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion and helping to write a 2003 law -- which was overturned by a federal appeals court -- that banned a controversial late-term abortion procedure.
Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) said McDonnell's beliefs are tied to a strong commitment to family and faith. When McDonnell, who has five children and lives in Virginia Beach, was a freshman delegate, he joined Mims and two other lawmakers in starting a Bible study group that meets while the General Assembly is in session. Today, Mims said, about 25 people come to the Wednesday morning chats.
"Bob is a conservative, and his beliefs are genuine and deeply held," Mims said. "He doesn't have a public political side that he puts on before he heads to the first breakfast meeting."
McDonnell, the son of an Air Force officer and the oldest of five children, was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Northern Virginia. As a football player at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, he was among only a few players who scored touchdowns against the storied T.C. Williams Titans.
Thomas Farrell, a high school classmate who is president of Dominion Resources, said McDonnell played football, ran track and was treasurer of the student council. "He was never a slacker at anything," Farrell said.
McDonnell went on to study at Notre Dame on an ROTC scholarship. As a medical supply officer in West Germany in the late 1970s, McDonnell helped run an Army clinic. Along with some Army buddies, he earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for "stretcher bearing." The friends slogged 93.4 miles carrying a 140-pound soldier on a stretcher.
Griffith said that anecdote illustrates the sort of determination McDonnell brings to his work as a lawmaker. The two once pulled an all-nighter while writing a budget amendment that ultimately failed. And McDonnell is known for doing his homework on bills and for his ability to rattle off facts and figures during debates.
McDonnell went on to serve in the Army Reserve and retired in 1997 as a lieutenant colonel.
After returning from his military service, McDonnell worked for a hospital supply company and eventually attended Regent University in Virginia Beach, where he received his law degree. Regent was founded by Robertson, and its curriculum is religion-based. For a few months in 1988, he was an intern with the U.S. House of Representatives Republican Policy Committee, an experience that sparked his interest in politics.
McDonnell's supporters include the Virginia Fraternal Order of Police, the Northern Virginia Technology Council and a number of public safety officials.
But the National Rifle Association, which typically endorses GOP candidates, has endorsed McDonnell's opponent, Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who sponsored a state constitutional amendment, which passed in 2000, that guaranteed the right to hunt and fish in Virginia.
Friends say that despite his reputation for working long hours, McDonnell also has a lighter side. He's fond of pointing out that his wife, Maureen, was a Redskinette. And longtime friend Scott Rigell said that when their families met to go boating last summer, the candidate, at the urging of his children, hopped on an inner tube.
"You reach speeds of about 40 miles per hour," Rigell said. "I was thinking, 'I'm slinging the next attorney general six or seven feet off the water.' "