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Amid scandal, outgoing Va. governor’s star falls

Political prospects uncertain as he prepares to depart

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (left) was once widely mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (left) was once widely mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick.

RICHMOND — Bob McDonnell’s national profile ascended quickly in four years as governor of Virginia.

He delivered the 2010 Republican response to the State of the Union address. He became chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2011 and was widely mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick just over a year ago. Even on the day he was passed over in favor of Representative Paul Ryan, McDonnell introduced Mitt Romney at a Norfolk naval museum and basked in the candidate’s public praise.

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‘‘What a great governor you have,” Romney told Virginians. ‘‘What a terrific man and a terrific leader. Way to go.”

That was then. McDonnell, 59, leaves office in January under the cloud of a federal investigation that has overshadowed his accomplishments, risks tarnishing his legacy, and perhaps has crippled beyond repair a once-promising political future.

He has not ruled out a return to politics, though options seem limited. He said that he will remain engaged in ‘‘compassionate conservative” policies, including perhaps homelessness or prisoners’ rights, but did not disclose specifics.

The governor’s seat has opened the door to higher office since Thomas Jefferson held it from 1779 to 1781. McDonnell’s two immediate predecessors, Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, are now US senators. Even so, McDonnell said he has no interest in the Senate and has never thought seriously about the White House. He brushed aside questions about whether an investigation into his relationship with a donor had derailed his political career, saying he has never looked beyond his current position.

‘‘The thought of doing something beyond being governor of Virginia is something the press mentioned and other people mentioned, but until I finished this office, I really wasn’t going to engage seriously in thinking what else could that be,” said McDonnell, a former legislator, state attorney general, and retired Army lieutenant colonel.

Like all Virginia governors, he is barred from seeking a consecutive term. After being governor, he said, ‘‘There really aren’t a whole lot of offices that excite you.”

McDonnell’s departure comes as federal prosecutors investigate whether he and his wife, Maureen, gave special treatment to Star Scientific Inc., a dietary supplement-maker whose chief executive helped cover catering costs for their daughter’s wedding and gave the first couple other gifts, including a Rolex watch.

McDonnell apologized in July and said he had returned more than $120,000 in loans, as well as other gifts. He said that he had done nothing illegal on Star Scientific’s behalf but that he would do ‘‘things differently today than choices I made a couple of years ago.”

‘‘This has been a difficult year,” he said. ‘‘In 37 years [of service], never has anyone ever even insinuated that I have done anything improper in my professional life.’’

A Justice Department spokesman and a spokesman for McDonnell’s legal team declined to comment on the investigation, which surprised many.

‘‘If you said Bob McDonnell, the first words out of my mouth would be Boy Scout, Eagle Scout, just beyond reproach,” said state Senator Chap Petersen, a Democrat who served with McDonnell in the House of Delegates. ‘‘You just could not imagine him getting caught up in something like that.”

As governor, McDonnell has lobbied for select policy initiatives — for instance, delivering presentations in support of an unsuccessful bid to privatize state-owned liquor stores — and engaged with lawmakers on issues, including transportation, he has prioritized.

Whatever the investigation’s outcome, the scandal represents a precipitous fall for a highly visible Republican governor whose centrist appeal in a critical swing state made him a key Romney spokesman.

Elected at the dawn of the Tea Party era, McDonnell modeled himself as a social conservative — a Roman Catholic, he is antiabortion— but also a job-creating consensus-builder.

McDonnell is proud of his fiscal management, including four consecutive budget surpluses and a near-quadrupling of Virginia’s rainy-day fund.

‘‘People perceived him as a capable, mainstream, competent governor. He did a good job. That’s going to be the assessment of his administration — and what a damn shame about this scandal,” said George Mason University political scientist Mark Rozell.

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