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By DAVE NYCZEPIR
ANNAPOLIS -- While neither is on a ballot in November, Maryland's Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Virginia's Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell are waging a proxy war this year, campaigning for gubernatorial candidates across the country while simultaneously boosting their own chances at national office.
Despite their national battleground, the two are part of an unusual, but amicable geographic marriage. Their states share a border and a bay, as well as integral relationships with the District of Columbia and the federal government, which sits astride all three.
Both men chair their respective party's governors association, and in many ways their divergent political platforms and the political differences between their states reflect the conflicting visions of government Democrats and Republicans are promoting this election cycle.
"We have very different views when it comes to the federal level and approach to governance," McDonnell said, debating O'Malley at a Politico conference in February. "But that's the beauty, frankly, of American democracy and of the Fifth Amendment and our founders' vision -- written by Virginians."
"Financed by Marylanders," O'Malley parried.
"Well, they always have higher taxes," McDonnell shot back. "They can afford it."
Though McDonnell's days as Virginia governor could soon be behind him, should Mitt Romney choose him as his 2012 running mate, his rivalry with O'Malley remains a cordial one.
During an "Ask the Governor" segment on WTOP in April, O'Malley said he likes McDonnell personally, despite their strong differences of opinion, and McDonnell said they were friends during February's debate.
In many ways, their neighboring states are remarkably similar -- both benefitting from the close proximity of the federal government, with low unemployment rates and triple-A bond ratings, in spite of the national economic downturn.
Sharing a border also requires O'Malley and McDonnell to work together on a variety of interstate issues, including regional transportation and Chesapeake Bay cleanup.
"We want Virginia to be strong," O'Malley said, before adding: "I can tell you that last year we had a rate of new job creation that was better than Virginia's."
In February, McDonnell touted CNBC ranking Virginia the most business-friendly state in 2011, with 11 out of the top 15 states run by Republican governors.
Both governors have seen a rise in their national prominence of late.
They've become part of the national political establishment -- sought after in party circles and serving as the face of their parties at fundraisers and events, said Daniel Palazzolo, professor of political science at the University of Richmond.
McDonnell has gone so far as to say he'd consider a vice presidential nomination should Romney offer.
"I think he's a very skilled leader, and he does an able job as the head of the Republican Governors Association," O'Malley said, when asked on Meet the Press if McDonnell should make the 2012 Republican ticket.
But the smart, affable governors remain political opponents -- a fact neither seems to forget.
In the same breath O'Malley alluded to his friendship with McDonnell, he also criticized Virginia's passage of a bill requiring ultrasounds before abortions, calling it part of a culture war.
"I think measures like that are counterproductive," O'Malley said. "That's why we don't do them in Maryland."
He accused Republicans of taking a "hard right turn" once elected, limiting gay rights, women's rights, and unions, when their focus should be jobs and the economy.
For his part, McDonnell asked in February if O'Malley would still be blaming President George W. Bush for the nation's problems if he runs in 2016.
"We (Republicans) do believe it is time to really get serious about rekindling the American Dream," McDonnell said. "We don't believe it comes from more taxes and more spending and more regulation and more unionization, which is the philosophy of this president."
Both governors are admirable spokesmen for their parties, with neither exhibiting a clear advantage, said Todd Eberly, assistant professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland.
Their political futures may be decided by how well they handle the fallout from the legislative sessions in their respective states.
The 2012 legislative sessions in Maryland and Virginia left both states' governors licking their wounds.
McDonnell said the central issue remained the same for both governors this year -- balancing a state budget in tough fiscal times.
Virginia Republicans broke gridlock over McDonnell's cut-laden budget in the Senate only after increasing education and transportation spending and convincing Democrats to postpone a committee assignment dispute -- earning them the single defector needed in special session.
But McDonnell saw his Republican vice presidential chances take a hit when a bill requiring transvaginal ultrasounds before abortions hit his desk and caused a national uproar.
While he never openly supported the invasive ultrasound, he said he supported the bill unaware of the procedure it mandated.
"You have to realize, this wasn't my bill," McDonnell said later.
The governor amended the bill before signing it, providing women seeking abortions with the choice between an abdominal or transvaginal ultrasound, but the damage may have already been done.
"This is why he's not going to get the vice presidential nomination," said the University of Richmond's Palazzolo. "There's no way he can explain this -- not in 25 seconds or less."
Palazzolo later said McDonnell's not out, but his stock has dropped given Romney's reluctance to discuss social issues.
O'Malley failed to push his tax-heavy budget through Maryland's legislature, which instead passed a "doomsday" budget he opposed, containing sweeping cuts to education and law enforcement funding.
In previous years, O'Malley maintained a cautious, caretaker approach to government, with flat spending and budgets that hardly grew, Eberly said.
But with his name now whispered in Democratic circles, he needed an agenda more in line with the national party that raised money for high-profile programs like offshore wind, without giving into Republican demands for more spending cuts, Eberly said.
Unfortunately, the governor's perceived absenteeism made parts of his agenda, particularly the tax increases, more difficult to pass.
"As ambitious as his agenda was, it required far greater attention and presence in Annapolis," Eberly said. "You need to convey to members of the Assembly that you're invested in it."
Now O'Malley is expected to call a legislative special session to reexamine the budget, as soon as he is sure the Senate and House can reach a deal.
And while he championed same-sex marriage into law, his masterstroke could be undone by what promises to be a close referendum vote in November.
O'Malley should recover now that he appears to be brokering a deal, Eberly said, noting a budget resolution and successful 2012 elections will be the metrics by which his success is measured.
While the latter is true for McDonnell as well, his defense of the ultrasound bill amounted to arguing there were no social bills on his agenda this session, and that the media misconstrued his position on the bill.
"I don't know what's sort of a worse story to write about your state," Eberly said. "I think they can both hurt a governor pretty badly."
Regardless, both governors have remained focused when it comes to the 2012 elections.
"Look, I'm chairman of the Republican Governors Association," McDonnell said. "My top goal is to be able to beat Martin O'Malley and get more Republican governors elected this year, and I'm confident that we're going to be able to get that done."
Toward the end of the Politico conference O'Malley said, "We should take this on the road."