Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell won bragging rights over Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley in the Wisconsin recall election Tuesday.

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker staved off an attempted ouster by Democrat Tom Barrett in Tuesday's special election, but the contest was as much a proxy fight between McDonnell, head of the Republican Governors Association, and O'Malley, his counterpart in the Democratic Governors Association, a dress rehearsal for nearly a dozen gubernatorial contests this fall.

"Voters are ready for political leaders who are willing to follow Gov. Walker's lead and take on the toughest issues; governing with a greater focus on the next generation than the next election," McDonnell said. "That's exactly what Gov. Walker has done, and his executive leadership contrasts sharply with the absence of leadership in the White House."

Wisconsin, a state that voted Republican for governor in 2010 and Democratic for president in 2008, was sharply divided between Walker allies and Barrett backers, presenting a rare midyear opportunity for the two party leaders to test their political operations.

The special election also provided an opportunity for McDonnell and O'Malley, neighboring governors who cooperated on regional issues but became far more combative in their national roles, to test the mettle of the other ahead of 11 gubernatorial races in which their candidates will compete in November.

McDonnell said Walker's win sets the table for more Republican victories in 2012.

But O'Malley, in an appearance on CNN, declined to speculate about what stake his own party had in the Wisconsin race in which labor unions, an important Democratic constituency, were Walker's chief adversary. Instead, he portrayed the race as a parochial affair "about whether the people of Wisconsin are creating jobs and expanding opportunity again."

O'Malley spent Thursday in Wisconsin rallying Democrats. His DGA contributed $3.4 million to help Barrett.

McDonnell was supposed to appear with Walker last week, but he revealed Tuesday that he never made the trip. He said it was canceled at the last minute because of weather.

While McDonnell's RGA spent $9 million to help Walker, the group also tried to make O'Malley himself an issue in Wisconsin, issuing a Web video that portrayed O'Malley as a tax-and-spend liberal and then linking Barrett to him.

It was the most direct and personal attack between O'Malley and McDonnell, an indication of just how combative the two area governors have grown as they ascend to national roles on behalf of their parties.