RICHMOND — Gov. Robert F. McDonnell says he doubts Bill Bolling will return to the Virginia gubernatorial race as an independent candidate, but the lieutenant governor warns that his old ally shouldn’t count him out yet.

McDonnell (R) was asked Tuesday about whether he thought Bolling should run as an independent in November on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown.” His response: “I don't think that’s going to happen.”

“I think the press has played that up,” McDonnell told host Chuck Todd. “I’ve already told [Bolling] I’m supporting Ken Cuccinelli.”

Bolling spokeswoman Ibbie Hedrick fired back Tuesday, saying, “I assure you that Lieutenant Governor Bolling is seriously considering the possibility of an Independent campaign.”

“He is clearly the most qualified person to lead Virginia into the future, a fact that is becoming all the more obvious as this campaign unfolds,” Hedrick told The Washington Post in a statement. “The encouragement that he has received over the past three months has been extraordinary. He is currently going through a comprehensive due diligence process to determine if he can run a winning campaign. that process should be completed in the next few weeks . . . Stay tuned.”

McDonnell had planned to back Bolling as the Republican nominee for this fall’s contest until the lieutenant governor — who stepped aside to make way for McDonnell in 2009 — announced in November he was suspending his GOP campaign. Bolling said he saw his prospects for victory as diminished after the state Republican Party changed the nominating process from a primary to a vote at the state convention.

Since bowing out, Bolling has blasted attorney general Cuccinelli as too extreme to appeal to mainstream voters in a general election, and has cast himself as a potential alternative who could be more palatable to mainstream Republicans and independent voters.

Bolling is expected to decide whether he will launch an independent campaign by March 14.

The lieutenant governor flexed his new-found independence during the 45-day General Assembly session that ended Saturday, breaking with McDonnell and his GOP colleagues at the Capitol on several issues. With the legislative session behind him, Bolling is now free to explore his fundraising prospects and gather the 10,000 signatures he would need to make the general election ballot as an independent.

A recent Quinnipiac poll shows prospective Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe and Cuccinelli at 34 percent and 31 percent, respectively, with a Bolling candidacy drawing 13 percent of the vote should he decide to make it a three-way contest. A two-man race between Cuccinelli and McAuliffe polled dead even, at 38 percent for each candidate.