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The race for VP: in search of Romney’s running mate

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Now that both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are out of the picture and Mitt Romney is certain to be the Republican nominee for the White House, the Washington chattering class has moved to speculate about the possible identity of the Governor’s future running mate. The names that have been mentioned so far include usual suspects like Senators Marco Rubio and Rob Portman, as well as a few surprises, for example former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The jury is still out on how large an impact the choice of a VP really has on the chances of success of a presidential hopeful. “Many people think that John F. Kennedy’s selection of Lyndon Johnson helped him carry the South in 1960,” says Larry J. Sabato, Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “The problem is that it’s very hard to measure the electoral impact of a VP choice: voters vote principally for the name at the top of the ticket and, in this day and age, with a heavily polarized voting public, there are very few people who are going to be captured based on who a candidate selects as his VP.” Nevertheless, the American vice president is only a heartbeat away from the highest office in the land. Additionally, the selection of a running mate can give supporters and critics alike a better insight into the kind of person, and politician, a candidate for the White House really is. For this reason, the process is more delicate this year than ever before. After the end of a divisive GOP primary, Romney is in the position of having to connect with constituencies that have divergent demands: religious and fiscal conservatives, who believe he is too much of a moderate, and independent voters, some of whom have been put off by the increasingly conservative positions Romney has taken in recent months.

Since the VP selection process generates a lot of media attention, experts agree that a candidate picking a running mate must try to stay away from controversy. “Generally speaking, the foremost rule for selecting a VP follows the old medical axiom ‘first do no harm,’” says Professor Sabato, “And yet, this political maxim is often violated.” In 2008, Senator John McCain learned this lesson the hard way, when his attempt to excite conservatives by choosing Sarah Palin all but ran his campaign into the ground. According to Sabato, in 1984 Walter Mondale was also looking to energize voters when he went with Geraldine Ferraro, but questions about her husband’s finances quickly turned her into a liability. Other examples of how the process can go astray are those of Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton, selected but then quickly dumped by George McGovern in 1972, after stories emerged about his mental illness, and of Dan Quayle, whom George H.W. Bush picked in 1988 hoping that he would bridge the generational gap. Instead, Quayle eventually became “a national punch line.”

The truth is that finding a high profile politician with no downside is easier said than done, since all public figures have negative connotations associated with them.

Therefore, Romney and Beth Myers – the advisor whom he recently appointed to lead the search for a running mate – have difficult strategic decisions to make. First and foremost, they will have to resolve whether to go with a running mate who complements the Governor, helping him to gain support from constituencies that have so far resisted him, or instead pick someone who reinforces Romney’s image as a moderate and pragmatist, a combination that observers have already dubbed “double vanilla.”

“Nominees from the more moderate part of the Republican Party, such as Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain have felt compelled to choose running mates who are more popular with the party’s right wing (for example, Quayle, Jack Kemp and Palin,)” says Professor Joel Goldstein of Saint Louis University School of Law, one of the country’s foremost experts on the vice presidency. “Conversely, Ronald Reagan thought he needed to demonstrate that he was open to more moderate views which led him to select Bush.” According to Goldstein, Mondale and Lloyd Bentsen also made for good balancing acts for Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis respectively. Finally, Clinton played the “reinforcing” card by picking Al Gore, another emerging Southern politician from the baby boom generation who strengthened his image as a “New Democrat”.

Of the most talked about potential running mates who would definitely fall into the “reinforcing” category is Senator Rob Portman. The former budget director and trade representative is a knowledgeable politician, especially on economic issues. And he hails from big prize Ohio. However, his deep connection to the administration of former President George W. Bush and his long career as a Washington insider run counter to the desire of much of the GOP base to see fresh faces take over.

Along with Portman, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty also belong to the “double vanilla” scenario. They are known as pragmatic Republicans who can negotiate political headwinds and are open to compromise to achieve results. Unfortunately for Romney, they also tend to the wonky side of politics and are not known as particularly lively debaters, a combination that many voters might find dull.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, a relatively moderate Republican and the well-liked Governor of a swing state, was for a while at the top of everybody’s wish list. However, a contentious bill on women’s reproductive rights that recently came out of the GOP-controlled Virginia State Assembly indirectly put McDonnell at odds with one of the demographic groups Romney is most struggling with, American women.

One politician known for his conservative straight-talk and for his mass appeal is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who enjoys high approval ratings in a traditionally blue state. However, Christie’s larger-than-life personality and his tendency to speak his mind, even when it would be wiser not to, might be a clumsy fit for Romney’s airtight campaign.

Many believe that Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a rising star in the GOP and a Tea Party darling, would make for a dream vice presidential candidate. He is maybe the most promising in a group of potential running mates who would complement Romney’s personality and political preferences. His Cuban origins could help the Governor heal the growing rift between Republicans and Hispanic voters, all too often put off by tough talk on immigration issues. He would also appeal to fiscal conservatives and the religious right. Finally, he comes from the most important swing state in the land. On the minus side, Rubio is very young and inexperienced and it is hard to predict how he would fare under the pressure of the most scrutinized political competition in the country and, possibly, the world.

Some of the same considerations are true for Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. The author of the House GOP budget blueprint has indisputable conservative credentials and the reputation of an ideas man. But he might have gone a bit too far in proposing historic cuts to government spending across the board, including to beloved social programs like Medicare. He might scare off more than one moderate.

Similarly, if Romney were to go with a running mate who appeals to the Evangelical right, such as former presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum and Mick Huckabee, he would risk antagonizing those independent voters who dislike hearing too much about social issues.

There are other names floating around, especially among the crop of young and talented Republican governors, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, New Mexico’s Suzana Martinez and North Carolina’s Nikki Haley. There are also rumors surrounding former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. And a recent CNN/ORC International poll has Condoleezza Rice topping the Republican voters’ chart, a preference shared by many party leaders, who look to Rice as an experienced voice in foreign policy.

In any case it is still early. “At this time, few would have predicted the selections of Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, George H. W. Bush, Geraldine Ferraro, Lloyd Bentsen, Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, Joe Lieberman, Dick Cheney, Palin or Joe Biden,” says Professor Goldstein. “It would not surprise me if one or two of those are on the short list but I also think it possible, perhaps likely, that the short list will include some others.”