No state is more key to Mitt Romney’s path to the presidency than Virginia. Phil Cox, who ran the 2009 campaign for now-Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and is executive director of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), tells me : “There is very steady momentum in the right direction in Virginia and a number of swing states.” He thinks there won’t be big shifts in the race between now and November, despite enormous ad expenditures. (The candidates, between June and August, have already spent as much on ads in Virginia as they did in the entire 2008 general election. And yet the race remains virtually dead even.) He expects a close race down to the wire.

McDonnell certainly knows how a Republican can win Virginia. In 2009, he won the northern suburbs of Fairfax County, reversing a trend that saw Democrats rack up big wins. He ultimately won by 17 points. Democrats and much of the media then tried to focus on social issues, just as is the case in this year’s presidential race. How does Romney avoid being pulled off the issues he thinks are strongest for him? McDonnell, standing alongside his wife and two of his daughters, tells me succinctly, “It’s all about discipline and focus.” He adds, “[The negativity] was absolutely predictable because the president couldn’t allow the voters to focus on the issues voters really care about.” He reels off the Obama economic record — 23 million unemployed, record debt, a fiscal cliff looming, 8 percent unemployment for 42 months. “With a record like that, you have to talk about something else,” he says.

He terms the Obama campaign “small-ball politics” unworthy of the voters. It is precisely because the president hasn’t laid out a concrete plan for getting the country out of debt and getting Americans back to work that McDonnell thinks Romney will win. He reminds me that he won his 2009 race on a “Bob’s for jobs” message. He thinks that like his own campaign theme, Romney’s oft-repeated five-point plan for getting the middle class back on track is the key to winning Virginia.

McDonnell doesn’t think much of the media focus on “likability.” He tells me, “For Democrats and liberals to be convinced it’s a popularity contest and making people feel better shows how grossly out of touch with the American people they are.” From McDonnell’s standpoint, the convention will present Romney as a “capable, competent CEO” and ”put him in the light of father, grandfather, man of faith.” But the election will turn, he says, on who can present the better vision for returning the country to prosperity.

In that regard, McDonnell is convinced that the first of Romney’s five agenda points, energy, is critical. “It’s important because it relates to gas prices that have doubled since Obama took office and to jobs.” He notes that the top three sources for electrical energy are coal, natural gas and nuclear power. “The president has been hostile,” he says of the president’s stance toward these industries. “No wonder we have more reliance on foreign sources.”

McDonnell will talk tonight to the Republican National Convention delegates in part about the success he has had in Virginia, while explaining that the better business climate and lower-than-national unemployment in his state shouldn’t be credited to the president. On the contrary, he says, “Voters are smart and can judge between federal and state policies.” He points out that seven of the 10 states with the lowest unemployment have GOP governors, and 12 of the 15 best states for doing business have GOP governors as well. The argument, McDonnell says, should be that the country needs policies like those in GOP-governed states rather than the Democratic vision of “spend more, tax more, regulate more.” And, he jokes, who better to put forth that message than a former GOP governor?

McDonnell is chairman of the RGA and is optimistic about gubernatorial races. Eight of the 12 races he is focused on have Democrats who must defend their seats. That gives the GOP, he says, the chance to “pick up a couple seats.” In his book, the toughest race — the Gov. Scott Walker recall — is now behind him.

McDonnell didn’t make it onto the presidential ticket and refuses to talk about a Cabinet position in a Romney administration. “I love being governor of Virginia” is his frequent refrain. But he nevertheless remains a prominent figure in the national GOP — a conservative who can win in a swing state and an able strategist who knows that Republicans who talk in concrete terms on bread-and-butter issues can win purple states.