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McDonnell's selection of the House chamber for State of the Union response

Anita Kumar

When the GOP's congressional leaders -- Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell --asked Gov. Bob McDonnell to deliver their party's response to President Obama's State of the Union address one of his first considerations was: Where to speak from?

Often, speakers are members of Congress and they choose to give the response from Washington. That's what Sen. Jim Webb (D) did in 2007.

Four years ago, Gov. Tim Kaine (D) delivered the rebuttal from the Executive Mansion's historic ballroom. Last year, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) spoke from his office at the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge.

McDonnell's team of advisors considered a variety of venues before settling on the House of Delegates' chamber in the majestic state Capitol.

On Sunday, staffers from both Boehner's and McConnell's offices traveled to Richmond, along with FOX News, which is providing pool cameras for the rebuttal, to inspect the location. They approved.

McDonnell will stand facing the chamber -- the same way House Speaker Bill Howell does -- but he will be on the ground level. About 300 family, friends, legislators and supporters will fill the seats in front of him as well as some temporarily constructed seats behind him. They received invitations by email today. Media will be located in the upstairs gallery.

The event will cost about $30,000. It is being paid for by the Republican Governors Assoication and McDonnell's and McConnell's political action committees.

(Actually, before McDonnell could select the venue he had to officially ask Howell for permission to use the House Chamber. No surprise that his longtime friend said yes.)

McDonnell, who spent 14 years in the House, will spend some time practicing his speech in the chamber this afternoon.

"I'm comfortable there,'' McDonnell told reporters yesterday. "I spent 14 years there. I just gave a speech there a week ago and it's a great venue. The president obviously will be speaking in the great hall of Congress. I felt rather than me speaking at a desk by myself it would be nice for me to speak in a similar venue."

Political buffs (those who pay particular attention to the State of the Union responses) say it's extremely difficult for any politician from either party to compete with a sitting president when he has an extraordinary venue in the U.S. Capitol and a captive audience of hundreds of members of Congress and other dignataries. Most people don't watch the response, those who do don't generally know who gives it and the venue can never compete with the president's. The response often falls flat. People are still talking about Jindal's last year. Webb did well, but 2006 was when Kaine's eyebrow first made its appearance on national TV.

McDonnell's venue has reminded some of the one used by New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, the first to deliver the response outside of Washington, when she gave it in front of live audience at the state capitol in Trenton in 1995.

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said congressional staffers preferred the location be outside of Washington this year since much of the party's message is that many good ideas come from outside Washington.

Obama's speech starts at 9 p.m. McDonnell's response will immediately follow.

McDonnell's staff has spent more than a week writing his speech, that will run 10 to 15 long, and will include references to the economy, education and energy, and include references to his philosophy of limited government. Congressional staff have offered guidance on the speech, but McDonnell's staff wrote the speech.

"I was concerned about weighing into national issues, but they were obviously excited about these wins in New Jersey and Virginia and felt that I would be a good spokesman about the party. And if I could do a service in putting a positive, happy, pro-business face on the Republican Party, then I'm glad to be able to do it," McDonnell said.

By Anita Kumar  |  January 27, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  Anita Kumar , Barack Obama , House of Delegates , James Webb , Robert F. McDonnell , Timothy M. Kaine  
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Maybe he could use part of the time to propose a budget?

Posted by: jeffersonian1 | January 27, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

I had no idea that Christie Whitman gave the SOTU response a full 8 years BEFORE she was even elected governor of NJ!

Posted by: JTR555 | January 27, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

The GOP has not only hired crews from FOX News to "produce" tonight's Republican response -- including special lighting, hair styling and makeup -- but they have actually trucked (bussed) in a fake audience, mainly from the Virginia Beach area (howdy, Pat!) to applaud wildly, maybe touch hands like Jay Leno's creepy crowd, and perform standing ovations where the script, and the FOX director, commands.

Who pays for this use of the statehouse chambers is anyone's guess.

But I imagine it won't be Fox News.

Posted by: monklewis | January 27, 2010 8:55 PM | Report abuse

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