NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell endorsed Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney Friday, backing a fellow chief executive and delivering the former Massachusetts governor a crucial conservative backer on the eve of the South Carolina primary.
McDonnell called Romney the “right leader at the right time” in a CNN interview on the eve of South Carolina's first-in-the-south primary Satuday.
“What we need is a results oriented executive, a conservative,” McDonnell told reporters in a conference call from New York. After meeting with business groups in the Big Apple, McDonnell will join Romney at 4 p.m. for a Charleston, S.C., rally. He will campaign for Romney through Saturday, when South Carolina voters go to the polls.
McDonnell opted for Romney over a surging Newt Gingrich, a fellow southerner who is turning the Palmetto State contest into a heated race. But McDonnell remained complimentary of Gingrich, a Virginia resident, citing only his lack of executive experience as a potential negative.
“I certainly have respect for some of his ideas and the contrast he made with President Obama,” McDonnell said of the former House Speaker.
Until Friday, McDonnell, chairman of the Republican Governors Association and a potential vice presidential candidate, was one of the most significant GOP establishment figures yet to endorse a candidate.
But the timing enflamed speculation that McDonnell at least considered backing friend and fellow southern governor Rick Perry of Texas, who dropped out of the race Thursday. McDonnell maintained all along he preferred a current or former governor for the job, and until last week three candidates fit that bill — Romney, Perry and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Perry’s exit ultimately made a Romney endorsement inevitable.
“My friendship with Gov. Perry was important and certainly with a more narrow field it makes the choices much clearer,” McDonnell said.
“When it comes to job recruitment, there’s no one finer than Rick Perry … [but] the best candidate to beat President Obama is Mitt Romney.”
Perhaps also weighing on his decision, Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are the lone candidates who qualified to land on the ballot for the commonwealth’s primary. Gingrich failed to gather enough signatures to make the ballot in a state that he now calls home. Other contenders who sued to get on the ballot after failing to meet the ballot-access requirements had their plea rejected by a federal judge.
McDonnell dismissed questions about how the move plays into the vice presidential sweepstakes. As a popular governor in a swing state vital to Obama’s reelection prospects, McDonnell’s name is often included in those discussions.
“That’s not a factor,” McDonnell said. “I’ll let you all speculate and pontificate on that. I want to win.”