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Still, the comparison can only go so far, considering serving as vice chairman of a governors association is usually considered a less demanding role than leading a political party. For Mr. McDonnell, the position could give him a way to raise a national profile without demanding excessive time away from his duties as governor.

While Mr. McDonnell shot down speculation last fall that he was intending to run for president, questions remain about his ambitions after his term is complete in 2013. And there remains the possibility of being selected next year as running mate of the GOP presidential nominee.

Democrat strategist Paul Goldman called Mr. McDonnell the “leading choice” of vice president for nearly any of the current GOP candidates. The governor has in his favor his popularity, his Catholicism, his military background and, most of all, the fact that he’s from a crucial swing state, Mr. Goldman said.

“He is perfectly situated for a Bachmann, for a Romney, for a Pawlenty,” Mr. Goldman said.