Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has emerged as one of three Republican officeholders who political handicappers say have the most potential to unify the party and boost the fortunes of GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney as a running mate in November.
While Mr. Romney has revealed little about his vice-presidential search, Mr. McDonnell, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are widely seen as reliable economic and social conservatives at a time when the party faces the possibility of factional divisions heading into next month’s convention in Tampa, Fla.
The Virginia governor, experienced analysts note, is a staunchly pro-life Catholic with a fiscally conservative reputation and no known opposition among evangelicals, whose votes have been vital to GOP electoral success and many of whom are skeptical about Mr. Romney’s Mormon religion.
The Virginia governor is considered a competent, and at times engaging, speaker not likely to upstage Mr. Romney — unlike, say, more charismatic figures such as Mr. Rubio or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“There is a case for McDonnell’s bringing out the cultural conservatives in a state slipping away from Republicans at this moment and which has a large and growing number of liberals and moderates,” said presidential historian and Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. “I wouldn’t pick him on the basis of only [the race in] Virginia, but more to help unify the convention.”
“McDonnell is right on the money,” said GOP campaign consultant Al Quaye. “He couldn’t upstage Romney and could get the evangelicals.”
The wonkish Mr. Jindal, whose home state is already considered a lock for the GOP, has considerable ethnic appeal as the son of Indian immigrants, and he boasts extensive experience in Washington and Baton Rouge dealing with health care and Medicare — an Achilles’ heel for Mr. Romney given conservatives’ distrust of the health care plan he instituted as governor of Massachusetts. Mr. Jindal also has served as an active surrogate for the nominee on the campaign trail.
“Romney could say at the convention, ‘Bobby Jindal as my vice president will be in charge of replacing Obamacare with the kind of market-based system most Americans want,’” said Merrill Matthews, a health care policy expert at the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas. “That would really help Romney with conservative doubters.”
Mr. Jindal is also “popular with the tea party and fine with evangelicals,” Mr. Matthews said.
As his state’s health and hospitals secretary, Mr. Jindal took the Medicaid program from bankruptcy to surpluses in three years.
Many see Mr. Rubio as the undisputed political rock star among Mr. Romney’s choices, with enthusiastic support from tea party conservatives and a ready appeal to the critical Hispanic voting bloc. But he is also untested on the national stage and faces questions about his personal financial past.
Most analysts see uniting the party as task No. 1 for Mr. Romney.
“There is a fairly consistent correlation between unified conventions and fall victories — and disunited conventions and November failures,” Mr. Shirley said.
One Democratic strategist said every choice before Mr. Romney has pluses and minuses for the fight in the fall.
“The difficulty for Romney is that there is no perfect choice for running mate,” said Democratic consultant Eric Sapp. “McDonnell would get him more support at the Republican convention and help with fundraising, but also give Democrats ammunition to attack the ticket because McDonnell, like Rubio, has views outside the mainstream in swing states.”
When it comes to unifying the GOP’s uneasy factions, Mr. Shirley adds another name, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, who has credibility with the political right and, like Mr. McDonnell, not likely to take the spotlight from Mr. Romney. “Nobody votes for vice president,” Mr. Matthews said. Mr. Thune’s drawbacks: He hails from a tiny state and has no major legislative accomplishments to his credit.