Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell Golf Claps President Obama

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JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

President Barack Obama is greeted by Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia at Richmond International Airport in Richmond, Virginia, on March 9, 2012.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a potential Republican vice presidential nominee and booster of Mitt Romney, greeted President Obama on a airport tarmac Friday with a golf glove in hand. “I thought that it would be an appropriate gift,” McDonnell told reporters after the encounter. “He was very impressed that I knew he was wore a left-handed glove. I told him we had done our opposition research.”

Obama had come to Virginia for a visit to a Rolls Royce manufacturing plant, where the president promoted his plan for a $1 billion manufacturing research initiative which is unlikely to be funded by Republicans in Congress. When presented with the glove, Obama smiled, but did not take the gift from McDonnell. That task was left to a White House aide after Obama had left McDonnell to go work a rope line of supporters.

From a distance, the encounter looked friendly. But then McConnell was not entirely joking when he pointed out that Obama’s golf game has become a focus of Republican opposition researchers. In the months to come, Obama’s weekend hobby is set to become a political battleground.

Romney, for whom McDonnell serves as a surrogate on the campaign trail, has been particularly harsh in his assessment of the president’s handicap. “I just think it’s time to have a president whose idea of being ‘hands on’ doesn’t mean getting a better grip on the golf club,” Romney quipped late last year, in one of several gibes that Romney uses against Obama’s game on the campaign trail.

Romney’s campaign has even purchased a website, fortyfore.com, which tries to raise money off Obama’s hobby. “Donate $18 to send President Obama on a permanent vacation,” runs the pitch, alongside a counter that claims Obama has played 1,656 holes of golf since arriving in office.

At a January Republican debate, Romney, who does not play golf, went further. “The challenge in America, and President Obama doesn’t want to talk about this, is you’ve got a president who’s played 90 rounds of golf while there are 25 million Americans out of work,” Romney said, earning wild applause. For Romney’s strategists, Obama’s golf habit at a time of economic strife is a symbol of his disconnect from the people he governs.

So what can be made of McDonnell’s encouragement of the Obama golf game? The Virginia governor is, after all, a leading contender for the vice presidential pick should Romney win the nomination. He is governor of a key swing state with deep roots in the evangelical base of the Republican Party, where Romney has struggled to gain traction.

According to McDonnell, it was nothing more than a friendly gesture for a leader who has just about everything except a Wilson golf glove inscribed with his state’s tourism and travel slogan, “Virginia is for lovers.”

But nothing is so simple in an election year. Suffice it to say, it is unlikely that Obama will wear his gift from McDonnell on the back nine anytime soon.

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