RICHMOND -- Virginia's new Republican governor, Robert F. McDonnell, planned to talk about his views on the limited role of government, the need to rein in federal spending and the merits of offshore drilling as part of his party's response to the president's State of the Union address, according to early excerpts released Wednesday evening.
McDonnell was to deliver the nine-minute speech in the House of Delegates' chamber of the state's Capitol, a building designed by Thomas Jefferson. McDonnell invited 250 guests -- family members, friends, supporters and, at the last minute, a few Democrats -- as he tried to create a mini-State of the Union setting.
The setup was a clear departure from other State of the Union responses, which are generally delivered alone, often in an intimate setting. Four years ago, Gov. Tim Kaine (D) delivered his party's rebuttal from the Executive Mansion's ballroom.
Last year, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal delivered what was considered a flat speech from an empty room in the Louisiana governor's mansion, a setting that did not seem to flatter the young politician.
The congressional staffers and McDonnell advisers who organized this year's response sought a more commanding setting with an audience sure to applaud his vision for the country.
"I'm never going to match the ambience of the halls of Congress and the president of the United States, the leader of the free world," McDonnell told reporters earlier Wednesday. "I thought it would be a nice venue to invite a fair number of people so that they could hear the speech, to have a better backdrop than just a talking head on camera."
The theatrics surrounding the speech consumed Capitol Square, where a row of trucks was parked to assist FOX News, whose turn it was in a rotating pool of media organizations to air the speech.
The cost of the $30,000 event was paid for by the Republican Governors Association and the political action committees of McDonnell and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Congressional leaders chose McDonnell to deliver the response because of the way he campaigned and has so far governed: as a problem-solver who could appeal to Democrats and independents by talking about jobs and the economy.
In his first major national speech, according to the excerpts, McDonnell echoed many of the themes in his inaugural address two weeks earlier, calling for limited government and individual responsibility.
"The circumstances of our time demand that we reconsider and restore the proper, limited role of government at every level," he said.
McDonnell was expected to praise Obama for supporting charter schools and for sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. But he also prepared to say that Republicans have serious concerns over recent steps the government has taken regarding terrorism suspects.
Across Virginia, Organizing for America, an arm of the Democratic National Committee, was holding State of the Union parties, and Republicans were throwing their own parties to watch their new governor take his turn in the national spotlight.
Republicans in Richmond reveled in the moment, but Democrats continued to criticize McDonnell for giving the speech while failing to provide more guidance on how to close a multibillion-dollar budget.
"He's going to give a response having been in office for two weeks, on a country that goes from sea to shining sea," said Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond). "He's going to be talking about a budget that has a nearly trillion-dollar deficit. He's going to be talking about, potentially, wars in foreign countries. He's had enough time to be able to talk to us about the State of the Union. But he hasn't had enough time to talk to tell me and the 9th Senatorial District or my colleagues on this floor about $4 billion in cuts?"
House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) said he was invited to attend the speech late in the day through a personal call from McDonnell. "It may be a little late, but I'm not offended," Armstrong said.
McDonnell will be the third Virginian to deliver the response in five years: Kaine gave it in 2006, just after he took office, and U.S. Sen. James Webb (D) delivered it in 2007.