Republican Mitt Romney was not going to announce his running mate
Friday at a lumberyard in Bow, N.H., not after the mass shooting in Colorado turned
what had been planned as a rally to celebrate small business into a
presidential candidate's prayerful appeal for comfort for the victims and
healing for a mournful nation.
Yet politics goes on, and soon Romney will make his choice known; he is nearing the end of a rigorous vetting process that includes an 80-question form probing potential vice presidential nominees' personal lives and finances, including whether they have been unfaithful in marriage.
All this for an office that even casual students of American history have heard portrayed as a useless pitcher of warm urine by one who held the post, John Nance "Cactus Jack" Garner, FDR's vice president. (He was more direct, and pungent.)
Still, Romney's decision is sure to be one of the defining moments of his candidacy, and one that will be analyzed for clues to his character, though history teaches us that most times, a vice presidential pick matters little to the outcome of the presidential race.
Lyndon B. Johnson helped John F. Kennedy carry Texas in 1960 and probably made a difference in other Southern states. Yet the most relevant historical lesson hovering over the selection is the 2008 pick of Sarah Palin, an inexperienced and out-of-her-depth first-term governor of Alaska named by a trailing John McCain hoping to shake up the race.
Indeed, political analyst Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia recently praised former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty as "an un-Palin, perfectly presentable." T-Paw, as he is affectionately known, is believed to be on Romney's short list.
"Sarah Palin did cost John McCain some votes in 2008, and if that race was closer, her presence may have been pivotal. Thus, there probably is an increased interest in the Romney camp going with a much more vetted and safer pick this time around," said Christopher Borick, political scicence professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "Given the likelihood of this race being very close through the fall, it would be a very unlikely and unwise decision for Romney to look at a high-risk, high-reward VP selection."
Not that it will change many voters' minds when they go to the polls Nov. 6. In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, only about a quarter of respondents said a candidate's running mate mattered a lot to their choice in November; another quarter said it did not matter at all; and 48 percent said the choice would influence them to some degree.
"The role of the vice president in presidential elections," Borick said, "is one of the most overstated aspects of American politics."
At the same time, the office's importance as a stepping stone cannot be overstated. Consider this list: Harry Truman, LBJ, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush. Of the White House's last dozen occupants, fully half were former vice presidents.
Romney has been quiet about the process, and his disciplined campaign team, while putting together a variety of scenarios for rolling out a vice presidential candidate, has not leaked details. There have been hints, however.
For one thing, almost everyone agrees that the Republican presidential nominee-to-be prizes calmness and rationality, and is thorough and cautious in his decision-making. Ann Romney, an influential counsel to her husband, recently said that compatability would matter.
"I think it's going to take someone else that's going to be there with Mitt," she said in a recent interview with CBS News, "with the same personality type that, that will enjoy spending time with them, and also competent, capable, and willing to serve this country."
Below are some of Romney's most buzzed-about potential running mates, roughly in the order in which they've been mentioned lately:
Former Minnesota governor
Upside: A hockey-playing conservative with a "regular guy" image, Pawlenty is from a blue-collar background. He's an evangelical Christian, perhaps the most crucial group in the GOP base, and could reassure those concerned about Romney's Mormonism. Pawlenty, a dry personality, would not upstage the sometimes-awkward Romney, and their personal chemistry is strong.
Downside: He raised cigarette taxes, frowned upon by the no-new-taxes hardliners in the party, and once backed a program to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, another departure from conservative orthodoxy. Pawlenty would probably not put blue-ish Minnesota in play; he barely won a second term as governor.
U.S. senator from Ohio
Upside: The former Office of Management and Budget director, who served in both Bush administrations, has deep fiscal credentials, matching up with Romney's economic focus. He could help win Ohio, the most crucial of the swing states. He has plenty of experience as a congressman and senator and in the executive branch. Portman has a calm temperament, and he is described as so bland that he would make Romney look like a rock star.
Downside: Portman is tied to the Bush family and the policies of George W. Bush, which Obama and others blame for cratering the economy in the first place.
Upside: Jindal is a whip-smart Rhodes scholar and an expert on health-care policy, in his second term as governor. An Indian American, he would add ethnic diversity to the ticket. Conservatives love him.
Downside: Some believe Jindal stumbled in decisions made during the BP oil spill two years ago; his debut on the national stage, giving the GOP response to Obama's State of the Union message, earned bad reviews. An evangelical Catholic, he has written about having witnessed an exorcism that cured a friend of cancer.
New Jersey governor
Upside: Christie's blunt, tell-it-like-it-is persona and his confrontations with public employee unions have made him popular with Republicans and independents, especially in big industrial states such as Pennsylvania. He's seen as a problem-solver and a warrior who could go toe-to-toe with President Obama (or Vice President Biden in a debate) in the classic No. 2 attack-dog role.
Downside: Christie is unpredictable and volatile (witness the recent YouTube moment of his berating a constituent on the Seaside Heights boardwalk). Recent polls have shown that more voters view him as a bully. Though he is in good health, Christie's weight could raise issues for some. He opposes abortion rights, but his moderate views on issues such as gun control and immigration might hurt with the right-wing base that is the energetic heart of the Republican party in 2012.
U.S. senator from New Hampshire
Upside: She's young, energetic, and conservative, great on television. As a woman, Ayotte might help dent the gender gap Romney has with Obama. And New Hampshire, albeit small, is a swing state.
Downside: Ayotte has served in the Senate less than two years, which could draw unfortunate comparisons to Palin. She also offers no geographic diversity. Romney, domiciled in a neighboring state, owns a home in New Hampshire.
U.S. senator from Florida
Upside: A charismatic Cuban American, Rubio is a tea party favorite and could, in theory, appeal to Latino voters, who are trending Democratic in large numbers and represent a growing slice of the nation's electorate.
Downside: Rubio has less than two years in the Senate, so he does not have the experience Romney has said he wanted to have in his No. 2. There are also concerns that he has not been thoroughly vetted.
Paul D. Ryan
Upside: Ryan is hailed by both parties as a serious, substantive ideas man. He is a deficit hawk who wants to streamline the federal government, and he has a detailed, serious proposal to do it.
Downside: While Ryan has garnered respect for his budget-cutting proposals, some of the specifics -- including cuts to Medicare and conversion of it to a partial voucher program -- are unpopular.
Also receiving a bit of chatter are South Dakota U.S. Sen. John Thune, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and Bob McDonnell, the governor of Virginia.
For a time, McDonnell's name was mentioned often, and Virginia is a swing states that Romney wants badly.
But he also wants to cut into Obama's advantage with women. As a graduate student at Liberty University, McDonnell wrote that feminism was "detrimental" to the family and took issue with a court decision striking down state bans on birth control. More recently, as governor, his stock plummeted with women voters after he signed a law requiring ultrasounds before abortions.
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