Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney intends to talk about his plans for the middle class during his upcoming four-day bus tour that starts Saturday, but speculation about his eventual running-mate pick may overtake the interest in his message.
Two of the states on the tour -- Florida and Ohio -- are home to potential running mate selections, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rob Portman of Ohio. The other two, Virginia and North Carolina, are critical to Romney's hopes of ousting President Obama, who carried all four in 2008.
Obama holds narrow leads in the polls in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, while Romney leads in North Carolina, according to a Real Clear Politics average of recent surveys.
Rubio will join Romney in Florida while Portman will do the same in Ohio as the campaign heads into the Republican convention in Tampa.
The speculation about Romney's running-mate pick continues to increase, as various factions of Republicans have pushed for their favorites.
That could overshadow the message of the bus tour "a little bit," said Justin Sayfie, Romney's Florida campaign co-chairman.
"It's certainly top of mind for a lot of Republicans in Florida; is Sen. Rubio going to be the VP?" Sayfie said. "To the extent Florida does have someone who is being considered, that's a legitimate news story, and I think it's something there will be a lot of interest in when the governor comes here."
Rubio was the first choice of the 419 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents surveyed in a CNN/ORC International poll released Thursday. The Florida senator topped the poll with 28%, followed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who both received 16%. Portman and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, both considered finalists for the pick, received 6% and 4% respectively.
Romney's trip starts Saturday in Virginia, where voters will want to hear about issues important to their state as much as about Romney's potential running mate, said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.
"Symbolically, I think it's really important for the campaign that the candidates have a real presence in Virginia and showcase that they are paying attention particularly to the needs of the state," he said.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who received 6% in the CNN/ORC poll, will join Romney in Virginia. Romney will head to North Carolina on Sunday and to Florida with stops in St. Augustine, Orlando and Miami.
The tour ends Tuesday in Ohio, where state Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett said Romney would likely talk about coal and other energy-related issues but wasn't sure what else was in store.
"He's going to Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida first, right? Then he comes to Ohio," Portman's home state, Bennett said. "I don't know what to make of that. I really don't."
Four years ago, Republican nominee John McCain announced his running mate, then-governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, at a rally in Dayton, Ohio. This year, it's unlikely the running-mate speculation will eclipse Romney's message, said Steve Schmidt, McCain's 2008 campaign manager.
"The bus tour isn't for the benefit of the national press; these are activities that will generate tremendous positive local coverage, puts Mitt Romney on the front pages of the local papers," Schmidt said. "When you hit the road in the swing states with under 100 days in the campaign they tend to have a big impact in the states."
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