Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, right, and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, left, in October 2011. (Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The presumptive Republican nominee called Bolling “a great friend and, I hope, the next governor of Virginia” at a rally in Ashland with this newly announced running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Romney backpedaled later, apparently after he was reminded that Bolling has a serious primary opponent in Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), who just happens to be a favorite of the Tea Party voters Romney hopes to energize with Ryan.

“And we’re counting on you to make sure that when [Governor] Bob McDonnell retires — I know this one-term thing is an unusual thing in Virginia — we want to make sure to have a Republican take his place,” Romney told the overflow crowd he addressed after the main rally. “There are a couple of guys in the race. I love them both. I want to see one of those guys take his place.”

The seeming endorsement and retraction made for one of the more awkward moments of the day, though the competition in that department was fierce. McDonnell, a Republican who’d been mentioned as a No. 2 on the ticket, had the sad duty of introducing the Romney-Ryan duo.

Romney’s planned trip to the state had breathed one last gasp into McDonnell-for-vice-president hopes. The governor was still playing coy about whether he was in contention on national TV last Sunday morning. Come Monday, a rumor swept Richmond that State Capitol police had been replaced by Secret Service agents. (Not true.)

Also at the Virginia events and perhaps wondering what might have been was former Republican governor and senator George Allen, who is deadlocked with former Democratic governor Timothy M. Kaine in the race for U.S. Senate.

Just one senatorial election cycle ago, Allen seemed to be on track for reelection and his own White House bid. That was before he used a perceived racial slur, “macaca,” to describe a rival’s campaign aide. On Saturday — the sixth anniversary of the gaffe that cost him re-election to the Senate — Allen was five or six speakers down the list.

Romney’s apparent endorsement of Bolling was awkward not just because it left Cuccinelli out in the cold. It came just as Romney was trying, with his selection of Ryan, to make himself more appealing to anti-establishment Republicans for whom Cuccinelli is a hero. Bolling, though conservative, is much more understated and conciliatory than Cuccinelli, the in-your-face attorney general known for suing the federal government, a climate-change scientist and colleges with policies against anti-gay discrimination.

There was one saving grace: Cuccinelli was not present. The attorney general, who did not endorse anyone for president in the Republican primary, had a family commitment and could not attend, according to his political director, Noah Wall.

Wall referred questions about Romney’s comment to the Romney campaign, which provided a statement saying that the former Massachusetts governor only wants to see a Republican governor in Virginia and that he had not endorsed anyone in the race.

Bolling, who was out front for Romney during the primaries as his state campaign chairman, seemed to take the reversal in stride.

“Governor Romney and Bill are good friends and he was just trying to be kind,” Bolling campaign spokeswoman Taylor Thornley said via e-mail. “You shouldn’t read anything more into his comment than that. We’re focused on getting Governor Romney elected President. That’s all that matters right now.”

As he walked back his comments, Romney made a secondary gaffe. He said he loves “both” Republicans running for Virginia governor. There is, in fact, a third: White House party crasher Tareq Salahi is also seeking the GOP nomination.

Romney’s campaign, apparently less concerned about turning off Salahi fans, confirmed that “both” referred to Bolling and Cuccinelli. Salahi’s campaign did not immediately return a message seeking comment.