Virginia Gov. McDonnell, one of Mitt Romney's earliest supporters, admitted Tuesday that the Republican presidential contender's ground game isn't close to matching that of President Obama in the Old Dominion, a state of vital importance to both campaigns.
"The ground game's not there yet," McDonnell said Tuesday in a wide-ranging interview with editors and reporters from The Washington Examiner.
The Virginia governor said he believes Romney still has time to catch up and will make up for any disparity by contrasting the president's first-term record with Romney's vision for the country's future.
"It's the kitchen table issues: It's the economy, it's jobs, it's debt, deficit, energy," said McDonnell, who is often mentioned as a potential vice presidential running mate for Romney, but said Tuesday he isn't currently being vetted by Romney's campaign. "I've told Gov. Romney ... that's what he needs to focus on."
Obama won Virginia in 2008, the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so in nearly half a century, chiefly by mobilizing minority and college-age voters. But voters have since soured on the president as the economic recovery drags and joblessness persists, McDonnell said.
"I don't think [Obama's] 'hope' and 'change' rhetoric and the lofty ideals for the future work anymore," he said.
Virginia's importance in the presidential race has never been clearer. Obama, a regular visitor to Virginia, officially kicked off his re-election campaign with an event in Richmond last weekend. Romney also campaigned in the state last week, making appearances in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads with McDonnell at his side.
While Romney drew about 1,500 people to his rally, Obama attracted 8,000, a pretty clear indicator that the president, with 13 campaign offices already open in Virginia, is far better organized in the Old Dominion than his Republican rival, McDonnell said.
Romney has been slow to organize in Virginia in part because the state's Republican primary wasn't competitive. Only Romney and Rep. Ron Paul, of Texas, qualified for the Virginia presidential primary ballot, and so Romney never needed to spend money or establish much of a presence there.
Romney also is coping with a fractured Republican Party, whose most conservative voters have for months resisted embracing Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and instead flirted with a series of more conservative challengers who have since left the race.
"He's still in that healing, unifying the party stage," McDonnell said of Romney. "Now he'll begin building the ground game."
Obama won Virginia in 2008 by 7 percentage points by racking up votes in the Northern Virginia suburbs. But just 12 months later, it was McDonnell who won Fairfax County, the state's largest, on his way to becoming governor.
Romney can win Northern Virginia, too, the governor said, but he has to follow McDonnell's lead. McDonnell eschewed divisive social issues in his campaign and talked almost exclusively about the economy and jobs.
"It's not going to be a personality-driven election," McDonnell said of the fall's presidential contest. "It's a serious election and a serious time for the country."