PORTSMOUTH, Virginia (Reuters) - For Republican Mitt Romney, it was another visit to a battleground state, another appearance with a potential running mate - and another endorsement from a former rival who once had seethed at the idea of Romney being elected U.S. president.
Former Massachusetts governor Romney stopped in this southeastern Virginia city on Thursday and looked to Republican Governor Bob McDonnell for help in inspiring voters in the politically divided state, which Romney hopes to reclaim for his party in the November 6 presidential election.
Romney’s visit to Virginia - one of 10 “swing” states that are likely to decide this year’s presidential election - was a reminder of the potential and pitfalls the presumed Republican nominee faces in Virginia, which Democratic President Barack Obama won en route to winning the 2008 election.
Polls indicate Obama leads Romney in the state, where McDonnell’s popularity among voters put him on many short lists of potential running mates for Romney.
But then came the bruising Republican presidential primaries, when Romney was reluctantly drawn into discussions of divisive social issues such as abortion and contraception.
McDonnell became part of the story by promoting state legislation that would have required women to undergo an invasive transvaginal sonogram before getting an abortion.
The bill led to protests at the state Capitol in Richmond. A revised version McDonnell signed into law requires ultrasounds prior to abortions, but less invasive abdominal ultrasounds are an option for Virginia patients.
It’s unclear whether the controversy affected McDonnell’s chances of becoming Romney’s running mate, but on Thursday the Virginia governor was an enthusiastic soldier for Romney.
While introducing Romney, McDonnell reminded a crowd of Romney supporters about Obama’s 2008 campaign theme of bringing hope and change to the country.
“Remember three and a half years ago, we heard that tune about ‘hope and change?’ And now what do we have? We have recession, division and malaise,” McDonnell said. “It’s time for a change, don’t you think?”
McDonnell later told Fox News he would consider being Romney’s running mate if asked, but that he was not interviewing or auditioning for the role.
“I’d say that’s good media drama, but that’s not what has happened,” McDonnell said. “I just believe we need a change in leadership in this country with our job picture, our debt picture.”
Also standing with Romney was U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a former rival of Romney in the Republican primaries.
Earlier in the Republican primary , Bachmann had said Romney “cannot beat Obama” because the president’s healthcare overhaul - a target of conservatives - was based on a healthcare program Romney imposed in Massachusetts.
On Thursday, Bachmann said Republicans should support Romney because he could help jumpstart U.S. energy production, cut high gasoline prices and create jobs.
“Mitt Romney’s future for America would be a legalization of American energy,” she said. “It’s something to get excited about. It’s why we must elect Mitt Romney as the next president of the United States.”
Her endorsement came a day after that of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had been a bitter rival of Romney in the Republican primaries.
Romney - who in recent days has toured several swing states with potential running mates including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, Ohio Senator Rob Portman and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan - continued to focus on economic issues, the core of his bid to defeat Obama on November 6.
In Portsmouth, Romney said Obama’s halting of oil drilling off the Virginia coast had hurt job creation in what he said was a state that could decide “who the next president is.”
“Right here in Virginia, the idea that you have powerful energy right off your coast, that you could be creating good jobs, that’s been lost by a president who says no,” he said.
Obama opened up offshore oil drilling in Virginia in March 2010 in an effort to gain support for his clean energy strategy. But the president reversed course two months later, after the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
After several presidential elections in which Virginia backed Republicans, Obama won the state in 2008, reflecting a trend toward Democratic candidates driven largely by growth in the northern Virginia suburbs near Washington.
Also Thursday, Romney’s campaign continued to come under criticism for its handling of a situation involving Richard Grenell, an openly gay man who resigned this week as the campaign’s foreign policy spokesman after anti-gay conservatives complained about his hiring.
On Tuesday, Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades said the campaign was “disappointed” at the departure of Grenell, a former U.S. spokesman at the United Nations. “We wanted him to stay because he had superior qualifications,” Rhoades said.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that top Romney campaign staff members tried to persuade Grenell not to resign but that he was frustrated after being asked by the campaign to keep a low profile until the public relations flap died down.
Before joining the Romney campaign, Grenell was a prolific and inflammatory voice on Twitter. But once he got the job he deleted his most provocative musings on Twitter, which had included messages aimed not just at Democrats and the media but fellow Republicans.
Some questioned whether the Romney campaign, known for being meticulous in its planning, had failed to properly vet Grenell.
But some gay rights activists said the real issue was the campaign’s hesitancy to publicly support Grenell when he was being criticized by social conservatives.
“There are choices to be made in campaigns,” said Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud, a gay Republican group in Washington. “They chose to be quiet in hopes that it would blow over, and it festered and got worse. Had they confronted it, it wouldn’t have become the issue that it did.”
Additional reporting by Deborah Charles; editing by David Lindsey and Todd Eastham