Handicapping the Veepstakes: Romney’s Rules of the Road

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Darrell Sapp / Pittsburgh Post-Gazett / ZUMAPRESS

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney smiles and waves to the crowd after being introduced at the Consol Energy R&D Center in South Park, Pa., April 23, 2012.

Final part of our series. Also see our analyses of Marco Rubio, Rob Portman, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie and Tim Pawlenty.

We’ve spent a lot of pixels analyzing some of Mitt Romney’s vice presidential options. There’s a reason for this, and it’s not simply because surveying the field and weighing the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses is a popular parlor game. Romney’s choice of running mate matters. It’s true that voters choose based on the top of the ticket, not the bottom, and that history shows most VP nominees only nudge the needle a few points in their home states. “People say the VP selection doesn’t matter,” says Doug Wead, a senior adviser to Ron Paul who was involved in George H.W. Bush’s vetting in 1988. “The fact is, in a close election everything matters.” One need only look back four years for a reminder of the outsize impact a VP candidate can have on the outcome of the election. Go back one Administration and you can see the fingerprints an influential vice president can leave on a presidency. Romney’s pick will hand someone an express ticket to the nation’s highest office. Since 1900, a full 15% of vice-presidential nominees have become president themselves.

It’s eminently possible, of course, that none of the five potential candidates I’ve considered will get the job. Among Republican bigwigs, the smart money has coalesced around Rob Portman. Yet Romney could wrong-foot everyone, as John McCain and George W. Bush did before him. Romney has been taciturn about his selection process, and much of the advice observers offer tends to clash. Romney should do no harm–unless he can find someone who will invigorate the ticket. He needs to court women and Latinos, amplify his economic message, avoid picking someone who will overshadow him, tap someone who will excite the base, find someone from a swing state, eschew politics and focus on someone who can help him govern. Nobody checks off every box. All the candidates are flawed, as they are every four years.

(PHOTOS: A History of the ‘Veepstakes’ in Pictures)

Several additional candidates are worth mentioning. Perhaps no figure would thrill the GOP establishment more than Paul Ryan, a youthful, rising party star upon whom Romney has heaped praise. But the document that vaulted Ryan to prominence — the budget adopted by House Republicans, which would slash spending, lower tax rates and overhaul Medicare — probably precludes his selection. It’s already a punching bag for Democrats and a potential liability for Romney, who has expressed support for it. Tapping Ryan would swivel the campaign spotlight toward those issues, and Democrats a club they’ve wielded deftly of late. It’s unlikely that Romney would choose to make a third-rail issue a focal point of the fall campaign.

Bob McDonnell, the governor of Virginia, makes some sense. He’s a popular swing-state governor, talked about by religious and Chamber of Commerce conservatives alike. But McDonnell’s role in the state’s skirmish over requiring women to undergo ultrasounds before an abortion–not to mention his controversial master’s thesis at Pat Robertson’s Regent University, which espoused antiquated views about gender roles  — would invite further battles over what Democrats have dubbed the “war on women.” Given that Romney trails Obama by a sizable margin among the fairer sex, that’s probably not a fight he wants to pick.

(MORE: What History Tells Us About Romney’s Chances)

Bobby Jindal is intriguing: an Indian-American who has compiled a conservative record as Louisiana’s governor, boasts a glittering resume and has the ear of Evangelicals. But Jindal hails from a reliably red state, and delivered a memorably wooden performance in his one star turn on the national stage, responding to Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address. Jeb Bush, one of the “white knights” who party elders hoped would salvage a moribund primary field, has seen his name floated again for VP. But even many Republicans are suffering from Bush fatigue.

There is, of course, a conspicuous absence of women among the names often floated for Romney’s short list. The near-consensus opinion is that Romney is unlikely to choose a woman — not because of any prejudice, but because the options are weak. South Carolina governor Nikki Haley is a woman of color, which raised her stock among the chattering classes, but she’s been beset by controversy, losing luster with the Tea Party and raising potential vetting problems. In addition, she’s relatively inexperienced, which would undercut Romney’s argument that Obama was ill-prepared to handle the demands of a bruising recession. Ditto Susana Martinez, the popular first-term governor of New Mexico, who might help with Latinos, women and independents. (Martinez, who helps care for an ailing family member, has appeared to definitively rule herself out anyway.) Romney has spoken highly of  Kelly Ayotte, a rising star in the U.S. Senate. But Ayotte too is a first-termer, which is a major drawback with the specter of Sarah Palin hovering over the process. Plus, her home state of New Hampshire is a hindrance; it’s hard to imagine an all-New England ticket representing a party whose strength is concentrated in the South and Mountain West.

(PHOTOS: On the Trail with Romney)

So where will Romney turn? My hunch is he plays it safe and turns to Portman or Pawlenty, two low-key, broadly acceptable Midwesterners with governing experience and limited down sides. But it’s only a hunch. What’s yours? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

MORE: Inside the Presidents Club