Every month at the Hotline, we publish our veepstakes rankings, the list of the most likely running mates to serve on Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential ticket. It’s preceded by a vigorous staff-wide debate on the merits of the numerous contenders. The process is hardly an exact science, but we use our best judgment, reporting, and intuition to make the final calls.
But I’m having an increasingly difficult time reconciling the buzz that Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty are the clear favorites, even as I’m finding it harder to see what they add to the ticket. Given Romney’s tendency to play it safe, GOP operatives insist they’re the front-runners, but my gut instinct and contrarian nature make me think we could be in for a preconvention surprise.
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Portman, for all his strengths, is a consummate Beltway insider — one of the worst political sins in this antiestablishment political environment. Even more damaging, he worked for President George W. Bush as the director of the Office of Management and Budget at a time when spending was on the rise. That’s a double whammy, alienating independents who fear Romney’s economic policies will be a return to the Bush years and disappointing conservatives who could view Portman as complicit in the excess spending.
No doubt, Portman brings gravitas to the ticket. There’s a small chance he could tip Ohio to Romney, if home-state pride matters. He gets along with Romney, he’s vetted, and he would be a well-qualified vice president if Romney is elected. But the GOP field is deep with candidates who have similar strengths.
Pawlenty, meanwhile, has been an unfailingly loyal surrogate for Romney, could appeal to working-class voters, and hails from the upper Midwest, an important swing region. But his own political track record isn’t impressive: Pawlenty failed to win 50 percent of the vote in his two gubernatorial races and didn’t come close to meeting expectations in his own short-lived presidential campaign. He may well be the safest pick, but that’s not saying much.
Given that Romney is a largely undefined figure, his selection of a running mate matters a lot more to him than it did for past presidential nominees. Voters know he was a successful businessman, but don’t have a sense of how he would govern. Romney has been unusually hesitant to tout his own story so far. Polls and focus groups show that the wave of attack ads blasting him as out-of-touch with the middle class is beginning to take a toll on his image.
Romney needs to fill in those blanks, and there’s no better way to do so than by picking a like-minded running mate to articulate what his campaign stands for.
If he picked Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, he could inaugurate the “fix-it” ticket, featuring two turnaround executives with a record of results. Jindal’s record of rebuilding his state post-Katrina, reforming its long-suffering education system, and taking on entrenched corruption would send a powerful message that change can be achieved, with persistence and good governance.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is one of the few Republicans who is a star with conservatives but also has widespread appeal among independent voters, Hispanics, and suburbanites because of his compelling biography. Romney not only could make some inroads with the solidly Democratic Hispanic electorate; he also could build an inspirational narrative around the creation of an “opportunity society” and contrast it with Obama’s more populist appeals.
By picking Wisconsin’s Rep. Paul Ryan, he could send a message that he’s willing to undertake the tough but necessary entitlement reforms to get the economy back on track. Romney always finds himself in his element when he preaches the merits of the free market. Why not embrace the wonkery and go with a fresh-faced pol who has maintained widespread appeal in a competitive district despite the many attacks on him from the left?
That said, picking Ryan also carries the most risk of any of the prospective candidates. Romney badly needs to win over the remaining undecided working-class voters, who don’t naturally connect with his privileged background. By picking a running mate whose driving theme is reforming (read: trimming) entitlement programs that many depend on, Romney could push some of them into Obama’s camp.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a hero to conservatives for successfully taking on big labor and overhauling teacher tenure, while still holding enviable job-approval ratings in a solidly Democratic state. Surrogates tend to be the designated attack dogs, and few Republicans are able to articulate criticism of his opponents more effectively and directly than Christie.
Or why not New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, whose down-to-earth sensibility would offer a useful complement to Romney’s patrician persona? She would appeal to working-class women, a group both parties believe will play a decisive role in the election. As the first female attorney general in New Hampshire history, she prosecuted several high-profile murder cases and won plaudits from Democratic Gov. John Lynch for her performance in office. Moderates like her, but she has sterling social-conservative credentials too, having defended her state’s parental-notification law all the way to the Supreme Court.
Of course, each of these choices carries varying degrees of risk. Jindal’s unstinting social conservatism could turn off women, Rubio faces murmurs about ties to ethically-tainted Florida politicians, Christie’s Jersey bluntness may not play well in other parts of the country, and Ayotte is untested on the national stage. But the reality is that the so-called safe picks – Pawlenty and Portman – offer just as much risk, if not more. Their biggest risk is that they don’t offer Romney much other than the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Establishment Approval.
Romney holds a fundamental advantage over President Obama in the November election: He controls his own destiny. Obama already has used up most of his best attack ads against Romney and is merely hoping that the economy doesn’t get any worse. He’s largely at the mercy of forces beyond his control now. Most voters have already made up their minds about him. But by picking a talented running mate and delivering a winning convention acceptance speech, Romney has the opportunity to convince the skeptics and redefine the election.