CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's role in tort reform; business groups have questioned his ties to plaintiffs' lawyers.
The biggest question looming over Mitt Romney during the combative Republican primary was whether he would be able to unite the party. How could the former governor of true-blue Massachusetts and a onetime supporter of abortion rights, gay rights, and health insurance mandates excite the Republican faithful?
Yet what is known about Romney’s vice presidential search in recent weeks suggests that he doesn’t think his ability to excite voters is a problem. The names at the top of the presumed short list—Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal—are solid Republicans more likely to let the establishment rest easy than to make the rank-and-file stand up. None of these men would overshadow Romney, nor would they make voters like him any more or less than they already do.
Republicans who can stir an audience, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, appear to have dropped out of contention, despite their popular appeal. Christie reportedly has been tapped to give the keynote speech at the nominating convention, and a major tea party group picked Rubio as its top choice for vice president. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who raised the roof at Romney’s donor retreat in Utah and led a Fox News poll of potential running mates, also seems to have fallen off the map.
One thing about Romney’s top choices: All of them are palatable. The same could be said of the conservative movement’s view of Romney. The segment of the party that put him through the wringer during the primary before finally accepting his inevitable march to the nomination is largely deferring to his discretion in the vice presidential search.
A major reason for that is that at a time when GOP activists demand ideological purity, the rising stars on Romney’s short list are naturally those who toe the party line, even if, like Romney, they don’t fit the profile of a hard-core conservative.
“I can’t think of anyone who’s being talked about who is bad,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, which has extracted no-new-taxes pledges from virtually every Republican member of Congress. “Someone who had raised a lot of taxes wouldn’t be on the list.”
Republicans, with few exceptions, have been content to watch the search from the sidelines. Antiabortion leaders squawked when Rice’s name was floated. A report that Rubio wasn’t being vetted also drew a backlash, prompting Romney to insist that he was being considered. It’s unclear whether Romney is seriously contemplating asking the African-American former diplomat or the Cuban-American senator to join him on the ticket, or whether the campaign wanted their names circulating to get credit for looking at a diverse crop of candidates.
In one of the only other signs of a concerted effort to lobby Romney, business groups have pointed to Jindal’s ties to plaintiffs' lawyers. “Tort reformers and others have their concerns about his past closeness with the trial bar and his reluctance generally to champion tort reform in his state,” said Darren McKinney of the American Tort Reform Association, who wrote a Daily Caller column criticizing Jindal in May.
But, overall, Romney has faced few complaints over his vice presidential search. The Club for Growth, which didn’t hesitate to pick apart Republican primary candidates in a series of “white papers” and has targeted congressional candidates deemed insufficiently conservative, is holding its fire. “Pawlenty has some simply inexcusable tax hikes in his record … and his tacit support for bailouts, more job-choking regulations, and various tariffs make it difficult for us to identify his core ideological identity,” the fiscal-watchdog group concluded months ago. The group last year ranked Rubio substantially higher on “pro-growth issues” than Portman.
“Once there’s a pick, we’ll have something to say,” spokesman Barney Keller said. “We expect Mitt Romney is going to pick who Mitt Romney is going to pick.”
Longtime Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land said that, sure, he would prefer Rubio—whose charisma he compared to John F. Kennedy’s—or former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a staunch abortion opponent. But he said he could easily live with Portman, Jindal, or Pawlenty. Two other high-profile Romney surrogates, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, would also be fine.
Even the rabble-rousing tea party movement has refrained from lobbying against Portman, who served as budget director for the profligate Bush administration. The Tea Party Express simply announced in a press release that it favors Rubio.
“Do we feel George W. Bush spent too much money? Sure,” said Sal Russo, the group’s top strategist. “But this is a different day, and there’s a new sheriff in town.”
The willingness of several prominent Republicans to agree with Democrats that Romney should release more tax returns shows the party is not entirely in lockstep. Still, Romney looks like he will play it safe, as is his M.O., well aware that the last time a running mate was picked to generate excitement it didn’t go so well. The campaign doesn’t want any Sarah Palin-like surprises. If Romney follows the pattern set by recent presidents, he will turn to a seasoned Washington hand who can help him govern, like Ronald Reagan did with George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton with Al Gore, George W. Bush with Dick Cheney, and Barack Obama with Joe Biden.
History suggests that Romney will choose Portman, a white, middle-aged, trade-law expert who won’t jolt the campaign. That’s apparently OK with the Republican nominee, who is calculating that bashing President Obama—not choosing an unconventional running mate—will be enough to rev up Republicans in November.
This article appears in the July 21, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.