CONCORD, N.H. — Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell blasted President Obama’s policies and sidestepped questions about his own national ambitions in a prominent speech Monday night to Republicans in a state that holds the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
McDonnell criticized Obama for the nation’s $14 trillion debt, “crushing unemployment” and what he called the president’s failure to produce a “coherent, national energy policy.”
“We both really realized we made a big mistake back in 2008 because both of our states went for President Obama,” he said. “I hope you’re all ready to fix that problem next year.”
McDonnell’s remarks to a crowd of more than 400 at a fundraiser for New Hampshire Republicans is his first major national address since taking the helm of the Republican Governors Association — which did nothing to quell speculation that he could be a vice presidential running mate.
In a sometimes humorous, often history-filled speech, McDonnell spoke of the many similarities between the two states, including low unemployment and love of NASCAR. He received the loudest applause when he mentioned the need to tap the nation’s natural resources as part of a complete energy plan and to turn New Hampshire into a right-to-work state.
“We have a country that is now facing some tough issues,” he said. “It is time for a change.”
McDonnell spoke in the historic capital city at a fundraiser for a state GOP in disarray after an internal feud between tea party activists and establishment Republicans led to the resignation of the state party chairman. Tickets were $100 and $175, which included a VIP reception with McDonnell.
Previous party events have included boldface Republican names such as presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Karl Rove, adviser to then-President George W. Bush.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean , a former aide to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), said McDonnell made a “smart move” by traveling to New Hampshire because it will increase interest in his appearing on the GOP ticket next year. “He’s new on the national scene,” Bonjean said. “This trip will be viewed as whether he can be successful.”
In response to questions from reporters Monday night, McDonnell said that he would not enter the presidential race and that it was too early to talk about a possible vice presidential slot. He added that he has not spoken to the presidential candidates about running mates.
“Nobody’s thinking about that except for you,” he told reporters. “The only thing those nine Republicans care about now is how are they going to get the nomination, and they’ll worry about that sometime next year.”
In July, Romney reportedly said at a Virginia Beach fundraiser that McDonnell would be on “any candidate’s short list” for vice president. But this month, while appearing with McDonnell at a fundraiser in Richmond, Texas Gov. Rick Perry avoided a question about whether he would consider McDonnell for the No. 2 spot.
National Democrats declined to weigh in on McDonnell’s trip to New Hampshire. Virginia Democrats were uncharacteristically silent about the trip, although they have criticized his expanded RGA role — which gives him a greater platform to raise funds, network and garner national attention should he choose to run for higher office.
But New Hampshire Democrats sent a blistering fundraising e-mail to supporters, accusing McDonnell of cutting millions of dollars from schools, restricting abortion and cozying up to evangelist Pat Robertson.
“Mitt Romney and other presidential candidates have named McDonnell as a potential VP candidate,” wrote Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “Give today so that we have the resources to let people know just how out of touch Governor Bob McDonnell is with New Hampshire values.”
Many activists, sipping on wine and Virginia peanuts, courtesy of McDonnell, before the speech, said they knew little about him and attended to support the party in trying to elect a Republican governor and choose a presidential nominee. But after the speech, many praised McDonnell.
“He’s a good speaker,” said Ken Smith of Nashua.
“I think it would be good if he got in touch with the Republicans here,” said Joan Blais of Manchester. . . . He’s doing something right.’’
“I think Bob McDonnell is proving to be a good governor,” said Cliff Hurst of Manchester. “What he’s done with the budget is impressive.”
In the audience at the First in the Nation Celebration were U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte and U.S. Reps. Charles F. Bass and Frank C. Guinta — New Hampshire Republicans — gubernatorial candidates and more than 100 state legislators.
McDonnell, Virginia’s first Republican governor in eight years, took office in 2010 amid the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, almost immediately garnering national attention for helping the state balance a multi-billion-dollar shortfall without raising taxes. Virginia has reported a surplus two years in a row.
Republicans have been eager to hold up McDonnell as a model of a Republican candidate: They say he is a moderate problem-solver who can appeal to Democrats and independents by talking about jobs, the economy and other kitchen-table issues.
“Conservative fiscal principles work in the states, and they can work in the United States of America,” he said.
As RGA vice chairman, McDonnell was a constant on the campaign trail last year, but Monday marked his first national speech since taking over as the group’s leader after Perry resigned from the post to run for president. McDonnell is expected to be chairman through next year.