Political operatives have been closely watching the battle over the Virginia bill requiring ultrasounds before abortions as a test of how a rising Republican star with apparent national ambitions would navigate the most difficult social-issues-related controversy he’s yet faced. Governor Bob McDonnell has found himself under intense pressure from conservatives to sign the bill, even if it is disliked by independents and could complicate his national political future.

Just now, McDonnell gave his answer: He backed off — sort of. He’s dropping his support for the invasive aspect of the procedure, but still supports government-mandated ultra-sounds:

Having looked at the current proposal, I believe there is no need to direct by statute that further invasive ultrasound procedures be done. Mandating an invasive procedure in order to give informed consent is not a proper role for the state....
For this reason, I have recommended to the General Assembly a series of amendments to this bill. I am requesting that the General Assembly amend this bill to explicitly state that no woman in Virginia will have to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound involuntarily. I am asking the General Assembly to state in this legislation that only a transabdominal, or external, ultrasound will be required to satisfy the requirements to determine gestational age. Should a doctor determine that another form of ultrasound may be necessary to provide the necessary images and information that will be an issue for the doctor and the patient. The government will have no role in that medical decision.

This is unlikely to satisfy critics, because McDonnell is still saying that an ultrasound will be required by the government. A full-fledged opponent of “Obamacare” and the alleged government takeover of health care it represents still supports government mandating (to use a dirty word) this procedure before a woman can have an abortion.

Indeed, Virginia Democratic Party chair Brian Moran is already faulting McDonnell for not going far enough.

“Let’s be clear: the course of action that Governor McDonnell has advocated forces an unnecessary medical procedure on Virginia women whether their doctors think they need them or not,” Moran said in a statement. “Should Virginia women thank the Governor for giving them a choice over the type of procedure the state will force on them at his behest?”

McDonnell’s problem is that he originally pledged unconditional support the measure, leading to a terrible political situation for a popular governor who had enjoyed a relatively gaffe-free tenure. Now McDonnell may face criticism from conservatives for giving any ground at all. And independents won’t be happy, either, since they didn’t like the whole idea in the first place: A recent poll found they oppose any ultrasound requirement, 60-28.

All of which is to say that when you stray on to this sort of turf in search of support from the right, there’s often no way of navigating it without angering pretty much everybody.

UPDATE: Post edited slightly for accuracy.