Norfolk, Va. — Before the world got to meet the new Republican ticket, Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia met the pair of running mates here, alongside a hulking battleship, the USS Wisconsin, on the lip of the Chesapeake Bay.
For McDonnell, a finalist for the vice-presidential pick, the Saturday-morning huddle was the welcome culmination of a frenzied week — and the months of Beltway speculation about whom Mitt Romney would tap.
“These last few days have been wild,” McDonnell says. “I went to Puerto Rico on Thursday night, and we arrived pretty late; we didn’t get to bed till around four in the morning. And then I got up early on Friday.”
McDonnell, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, was on the island to stump for Governor Luis Fortuño. Fortuño, a dogged opponent of public-sector unions, is locked in a tight reelection race.
McDonnell, who has been friends with the Puerto Rican for two decades, going back to their days on the GOP’s rules committee, wrapped up his meetings in the late afternoon, shook hands, and then ducked into his car.
On the way to the San Juan airport, as McDonnell passed colorful homes and palm trees, his cell phone buzzed. It was Romney. At first, “he talked to me about some of things for Saturday,” McDonnell recalls.
Romney’s trip to southeastern Virginia had been on the books for weeks. And since Team Romney and Virginia Republicans had the details handled, McDonnell knew that the call might be about something else.
“He then told me that he was going to make the announcement, that it was Paul Ryan,” McDonnell says. “I applauded him for that — it’s a terrific pick.” Since they’d see each other in a few hours, the call was short.
McDonnell’s plane took off near dusk and headed straight for Norfolk. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, turned in early. McDonnell was up by 7 a.m. on Saturday and put on a blue shirt and dark jacket, no tie.
At 8 a.m., McDonnell drove toward Nauticus, the maritime museum where the USS Wisconsin is docked. He knows the area well. He went to law school nearby and represented Virginia Beach in the state assembly.
Once he was at the ship, McDonnell was all smiles. It was fun — exciting, even — to see Romney and Ryan together on the first morning of their electoral journey. The rapport between the pair was evident, he says.
After exchanging pleasantries, McDonnell, Romney, and Ryan stepped into another room, where they spent time with about ten Gold Star families, who had lost spouses, children, or siblings in foreign combat.
McDonnell, a 21-year Army veteran, was happy to see Romney and Ryan spend time with military families on their first morning as a ticket. “It was very moving,” he says. They stayed for 30 minutes, chatting and listening.
“A small group of us then met with Paul Ryan and his family,” McDonnell says. “We had some laughs.” Ryan’s wife, Janna, was there, as were Ryan’s children. A few minutes later, an aide noted the time.
McDonnell had to go out and introduce Romney. “Walking out there, with the Wisconsin as the backdrop,” gave the 58-year-old governor chills. “To make the initial introduction, that was a real treat,” he says.
The crowd roared as the governor took the stage. “This is a president that does not understand the American free-enterprise system,” McDonnell said, his voice booming across the dock. “We need a change.”
McDonnell kept his remarks brief and ceded the podium to Romney as the orchestral theme from Air Force One began to play. “Seeing them on that gangplank together, that was just spectacular,” he says.
For the rest of the day, McDonnell joined Romney and Ryan on a bus tour of his state, going to an event near Richmond and then an evening rally in Manassas, about an hour from where he grew up in northern Virginia.
On the bus, they “talked a lot about the days ahead,” McDonnell says. “There is a lot of enthusiasm and optimism. With the selection of Ryan and the upcoming convention, we can really pull ahead in this race.”
The race in Virginia is close. According to a Quinnipiac poll released last week, President Obama leads Romney by four percentage points, 49 percent to 45 percent. McDonnell predicts that Romney will catch up.
In this swing state, McDonnell says, voters are looking for more than just rhetoric — they want solutions. The Ryan pick, he says, will energize Republicans and impress independents who are looking for serious leaders.
McDonnell also expects the country to quickly warm to Romney and Ryan on a personal level, once it gets to know more about them. “The bus ride was a family affair,” he chuckles. “Political conversations were constantly being interrupted by grandchildren jumping in Mitt’s lap.”
“I told Mitt and Paul to focus on the uplifting ideas — on entrepreneurship and the American dream,” McDonnell says. “Same goes for reducing the deficit and standing up for the United States military. Those things will be important here in Virginia and elsewhere.”
Near the end of the day, outside Manassas, McDonnell reviewed his gubernatorial work as Romney and Ryan interacted. He wishes the rest of the country could have seen those “upbeat, fast-moving” exchanges.
“Early on, I was not aware of their friendship,” McDonnell says. “I had seen them on TV clips, but that’s about it. Watching them, it’s clear they are both dedicated to closely analyzing the fiscal troubles facing us.”
“Mitt comes at things from a business perspective, and Paul understands the legislative process, about how to build coalitions,” McDonnell says. “To fix this problem, you’ll need both perspectives.”
After the evening rally, Romney and Ryan said goodbye and headed to the airport, on to the next campaign stop. As he drove back to the governor’s mansion in Richmond, McDonnell reflected on the long day.
His big takeaway from the whirlwind Saturday: Romney made the right call. “Mitt easily could have picked somebody from one of the big swing states,” such as Ohio or Virginia, “hoping for a political advantage, but he did not do that,” McDonnell says.
“And I admire him for not doing that,” he continues. “Mitt picked somebody who had the best relationship with him, who has some of the strongest and best ideas on how to fix the country. That says a lot.”
McDonnell knows that the ride from now to November won’t be smooth. Virginia remains a deeply purple state. “But this ticket will have honesty and candor,” he says. “That’s the difference.”
“Making cuts in all areas of the federal government will be painful for people,” McDonnell says. “They’ll have to accept less spending. But Americans are willing to sacrifice if you’re willing to explain why it’s important for the future — not just for us, but for our kids and grandkids.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.