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McDonnell tries to govern, trailed by scandal

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It was supposed to be a celebratory occasion. But in a gaggle Monday with reporters after he announced a $585 million state surplus, Gov. Bob McDonnell was asked to comment on the latest development in his ongoing gifts scandal.

“I want to talk about the good news of the commonwealth,” he said. “I don’t have anything to say about those other topics today.”

He also refused to answer questions on the subject at a veterans event Tuesday in Northern Virginia.

But increasingly, the gifts controversy is becoming inescapable. It is hobbling what’s supposed to be a victory jog to the finish line of his administration while a chorus grows for him to step aside.

National audiences hear about the scandal in the context of his potential national political career, while state audiences read reports of federal prosecutors huddling with attorneys for the governor and first lady.

On Tuesday, The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk called on McDonnell to resign — the day after conservative radio talk show host John Fredericks did so. Another newspaper, The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, has also said McDonnell should resign.

CNN on Monday ran a piece about McDonnell’s woes, which have generated notice in an international publication, The Economist, as well.

“The toll on McDonnell has been huge,” said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “He’s totally off the radar now for national office, and he was once mentioned frequently for the GOP ticket in 2016.”

Sabato said, “No presidential nominee in his right mind will want to lift the baggage McDonnell brings onto a national ticket. Every detail of it would be reinvestigated, and usually more comes out as a result.”

McDonnell won the swing-state governorship in a landslide in 2009, the year after President Barack Obama secured Virginia’s electoral votes for a Democrat for the first time since 1964.

About a year ago, the governor was on the rise on the national political scene, flying around the country campaigning for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. McDonnell’s name was being mentioned in chatter about a potential vice presidential pick.

He served as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, work that also raised his profile, including speaking before hundreds of Republicans in September 2011 in New Hampshire — site of the first-in-the-nation primary.

Now, McDonnell faces ongoing state and federal investigations into him and his acceptance of gifts from Jonnie Williams Sr., a wealthy donor and the CEO of Star Scientific, and whether Star received any state benefit in exchange for the gifts that Williams gave the first family.

The governor has maintained that the company received no special treatment from his administration.

McDonnell on Tuesday declined to answer questions from reporters about the controversy after an event for a program designed to connect veterans to jobs in technology.

“I came to talk about hiring veterans and why that’s important,” McDonnell said in a clip posted on the NBC News website. “I can talk to you about the budget — we had a great day yesterday — but I don’t have anything else to say on that.”

A spokesman for the McDonnell administration noted that in the past two weeks, the governor has visited every region of the state and announced a $585 million surplus as well as “record Virginia wine sales, a rainy day fund set to exceed $1 billion, and new jobs in Pulaski, Russell and Southampton.”

“He’s busy governing,” said Tucker Martin, the spokesman.

Rich Galen, a spokesman for McDonnell’s private legal defense team, said Tuesday that “he’s doing all the things a governor would do.”

Still, the approval rating for McDonnell, long among the most popular governors in the country, slid to a low point of 46 percent in July, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. A majority of Virginians said they had heard about the gift furor, with 76 percent of those polled saying they had heard either a lot (42 percent) or a little (34 percent) about the matter.

Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, said McDonnell had been part of a broader 2016 discussion but “I don’t think he’s a part of that discussion anymore.”

McDonnell was among GOP governors mentioned in part because he, like other governors, is not tied to Washington at a time when it’s unpopular. He also noted that Virginia’s economy has fared better than the national economy.

Gonzales added that he’s not suggesting that McDonnell’s political career is over.

“I think it takes McDonnell out of the discussion in the short term, but only time will tell whether he has a future in elected office.”

omeola@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6812

Twitter: @omeola

McDonnell is “totally off the radar now for

national office.”

Larry Sabato, political analyst:
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