Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell often sidesteps thorny social debates in favor of kitchen-table concerns, but at the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., he may find himself playing referee in a showdown between the conservative and the establishment wings of the party.

In his new role as chairman of the Committee on Resolutions, McDonnell will help shape the GOP platform at a time when the party's right wing wants reassurance that presumptive nominee Mitt Romney won't renege on his conservative promises.

"McDonnell is probably a very good choice to try to split the difference between the more moderate people and the more conservative people who backed other candidates going into the convention," said Stephen Farnsworth, political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. "He's been able to be quite conservative in policy issues without scaring the moderates."

"There is a downside risk, of course," Farnsworth noted. "If the Republican convention goes in a really extreme direction, it might look like the socially conservative lawmaking of the Virginia General Assembly all over again."

McDonnell got roped into debates on God, gays and guns throughout this year's legislative session, in which the GOP controlled all the mechanisms of power. Most notably, a controversial bill that would have required women to receive a transvaginal ultrasound before an abortion became a national talking point and fodder for late-night comedians.

"That's the legacy that Bob McDonnell will leave as he exits the Governor's Mansion, and it appears to be the record Republicans hope he'll bring to their national agenda this year and into the future," Virginia Democratic Party spokesman Brian Coy said.

McDonnell, often mentioned as a potential running mate for Romney, responded with a statewide ad campaign to highlight his record on economic issues. Spokesman Tucker Martin said McDonnell hopes the platform committee will market the Republican Party as completely jobs-focused.

But the committee is often the focal point of intense political debates, and in past years moderates and conservatives have clashed over social issues. McDonnell served on the committee at the 1996 San Diego convention that was heavily influenced by pro-life groups who successfully lobbied for the platform to stand against abortion, including in the cases of rape and incest.

This year, the Republican National Coalition for Life wants a Republican Party platform to include positions against embryonic stem cell research and requiring faith-based organizations to cover birth control in health insurance plans.

"We are hopeful that we will not have to have any real confrontation of our pro-life issues, but one never knows," said Executive Director Dianne Edmondson. "We have to hold the hill."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com