WASHINGTON (Tribune Washington Bureau) — Mitt Romney already has had one run-in with the vice presidential selection process, and it did not end well.
In late May 2008, well after John McCain had sewed up the Republican presidential nomination, he summoned Romney and other vice presidential contenders to his Arizona ranch. None was picked, the prize ultimately going to a little-known governor, Sarah Palin of Alaska.
Soon the party nominee himself, Romney may not subject his finalists to a similar display. But he is already holding what amounts to public auditions, with potential running mates invited to join him at campaign stops.
Picking a ticket mate is often described as a nominee’s first presidential act, a window into his mind and personality. That could be particularly important for Romney, as voters try to sharpen a view that, for many, remains blurry.
He and his campaign strategists have said nothing to illuminate Romney’s decision. The campaign’s sparse official line is that his calculations will lead to someone with whom he feels comfortable and who would be qualified to take over as president.
Some current and former advisers suggest that Romney’s brightening electoral prospects could well make it more likely that he will choose a conventional ticket mate, rather than one designed to shake up the contest.
“He’ll want to do safe, smart and somebody who’ll be a partner in policy and in government,” said Mike Murphy, a former Romney campaign strategist involved in the selection of his running mate in the 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign.
The short list of those being seriously considered is known to only a small number of Romney campaign insiders, but the ultimate pick is likely to fit into one or more categories that have guided previous nominees.
The balancer. A No. 2
who compensates for the nominee’s vulnerabilities has been the most popular solution. Barack Obama settled on someone whose foreign policy credentials and long history in Washington helped offset his own inexperience. It didn’t hurt that Joe Biden’s blue-collar roots had the potential to shore up the nominee’s weakness with working-class whites.
Strict geographic balance, considered essential for many years, has faded as a consideration, though several current VP possibilities come from battleground states and might add at least a point or two to Romney’s total there.
Ethnic or gender balance could be more important considerations. Closing Obama’s lopsided advantage among Latinos is a major Romney priority. And polling reveals a sizable gap among women voters that a female running mate might address, though placing a woman on the ticket has yet to be part of a winning strategy.
Romney may not feel a need to balance the ticket with a strict conservative now that polls show strong support for him among Republican voters. But his immense personal wealth and privileged upbringing might lead him to favor someone whose working-class background could lend the ticket a measure of socio-economic balance and a more common touch. A running mate with military service or foreign policy experience could fill holes in Romney’s background, and the first Mormon presidential nominee may want someone with appeal to the Christian right.
Potential choices: Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
The young gun. “A bold reach across generations” is how the campaign manager for 64-year-old George H.W. Bush described the selection of 41-year-old Sen. Dan Quayle in 1988. He was tapped for his good looks, solid conservatism and Midwestern roots, which were supposed to reassure the GOP base, close the gender gap with women and nail down a key swing region. The campaign launched the obscure senator into a news media frenzy at the national convention, and he swiftly stumbled. Bush won anyway.
Romney’s age - he’s 65 - hasn’t been discussed very much as a potential liability. But he could decide to go with a younger running mate as a way of adding pizazz to his ticket. It could also help counter Obama’s support from voters under 30.
Potential choices: Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, 42, Rubio, 41, Jindal, 41, and Walker, 44.
The hatchet man (or woman). If the general election looks like an uphill fight in August, when Romney is likely to announce his pick, he may prefer someone best-known for a bare-knuckle style, an aggressor to be unleashed on Obama in swing states. To varying degrees, every vice presidential running mate plays the attacker role - to help insulate the top of the ticket from raw politics - but some do it with more gusto, and effectiveness, than others.
Potential choice: Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
The reinforcer. Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton defied conventional thinking by choosing someone much like himself: a young, white, moderate, Southern Protestant with an Ivy League degree. The first all-baby-boomer ticket of Clinton and Al Gore successfully reinforced a theme of change, both substantive and generational, that Democrats wanted to convey.
For Romney, a respected establishment figure or a likable, but bland, running mate may not excite the GOP faithful. But by amplifying his problem-solving, down-to-business image, he might increase his chances of winning over the moderate independents who will probably decide the election.
“If Romney is a button-down, get-the-job-done grown-up, then pick a button-down, get-the-job-done grown-up,” said Murphy, who argues that “old-think” of ticket balancing would merely throw a spotlight on Romney’s weaknesses. “Chris Christie is great, but then the story is ‘Mitt Romney has no charisma.’ If you pick Marco Rubio, then the story is ‘Hispanics hate Mitt Romney.’”
Potential choices: Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, Govs. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Bob McDonnell of Virginia, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and former Govs. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jeb Bush of Florida.
With the nominating convention still 10 weeks away, the early front-runner for vice president is Portman. And that, somewhat paradoxically, would make him a surprise pick, because early veep speculation seldom pans out.
At this point in the campaign four years ago, more than a dozen Democrats were being widely discussed as potential Obama choices. Biden’s name was well down the list. And apart from being heralded by some conservative commentators, Palin wasn’t visible on the national scene at all.
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