Senior Republicans may be unwilling to publicly call the presidential nominating campaign finished, but the consensus is that Mitt Romney will be the party's candidate against President Obama later this year. As Romney works toward the 1,144 delegates he needs to formally lock up his party's nomination, another, far less formal and far more secretive campaign is getting under way -- the campaign to become Romney's vice presidential running mate.
None of the candidates jockeying in this second contest will admit publicly that they want the job. Instead, their advisers and fans are working diligently to make the case to Romney's team, to put their candidates in a position to impress the nominee and to be ready to answer if and when Romney calls their name.
A handful of these candidates' advisers and supporters, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to share details of a process usually conducted behind closed doors, described three areas of focus:
-- Candidates must stake out policy territory they can call their own before vice presidential speculation colors any move they make.
-- They must master of a wide range of policy positions, in order to prepare for the harsh glare of the national spotlight (“We’re not going to have a Rick Perry situation,” said one adviser to a potential vice presidential short-lister).
-- They must make the case that they have something to bring to the table, whether through their appeal to specific geographic or electoral groups or through their sheer work ethic.
Republicans, including those in Romney’s camp, don’t believe the 2012 election will be decided by such a narrow margin that the vice presidential selection would make the winning difference. And they certainly don’t see themselves running so far behind that, like Sen. John McCain in 2008, they feel forced to pick someone so far outside the mainstream that he or she provides an opportunity to shake up the race. That would seem to argue for a safe pick, someone who conveys a sense of stability and security, with maybe a little political benefit on the side.
At the same time, that sense does not augur well for any long shots hoping to be scooped up from well outside the establishment. Burned by Sarah Palin in 2008 and informed by Perry’s harsh introduction to the national stage, members of Washington’s Republican establishment will urge Romney to pick someone who, above all, will do no harm.
Several prominent Romney surrogates are widely seen as potential vice presidential nominees. Romney has traveled extensively through Iowa and New Hampshire with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, something aides to other potential candidates have noted with jealousy. Christie, a rising star in the Republican Party, seriously contemplated running for president. And he has said he would accept his party's vice presidential nomination if Romney came calling, an obvious, but surprisingly rare, admission in a backroom race frequently marked by false modesty.
At the height of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's rise to the top of the GOP field, Romney rolled out an endorsement from South Dakota Sen. John Thune, a conservative well-known to Iowa Republicans. Thune advisers say privately that the nod proved critical to Romney's caucus victory (then again, following an eight-vote win in Iowa, anyone who endorsed Romney gets to claim credit for his victory). Thune has also staked out bona fides on foreign policy; as a member of Senate Republican leadership, he spearheaded the GOP's position on the START Treaty earlier this year.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has not formally endorsed Romney, though he has hinted strongly that he will vote for Romney in Virginia's March 6 primary. But as head of the Republican Governors Association, a post that helped launch Romney as a national candidate in 2006, McDonnell has built himself a following among conservative circles. He has traveled to New Hampshire, and he'll be in South Carolina this weekend, trips that are difficult to see as anything other than aimed at boosting his national presence. And McDonnell is receiving occasional briefings to better acquaint himself with issues he doesn't ordinarily deal with, a top adviser said.
Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room is also the youngest -- Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida conservative whose presence on the national scene has some Republicans hoping they can repair damaged relations with Hispanic voters. Rubio's advisers insist he is neither interested nor expecting to be asked, but they have put him in a position to make the list.
Rubio has worked to establish himself as a communicator of the GOP's national message, and until Romney picks a running mate, everything Rubio does will be viewed through the prism of a potential vice presidential candidacy, his advisers recognize. They consciously sought to carve out Rubio's own areas of policy expertise last year, in areas like human trafficking and government spending (he sent a letter to President Obama last week that got more press attention than a similar missive from any other senator would have received), so that he could more credibly argue that not every action was driven by a lust for higher office.
Rubio's aides zealously guard his image and reputation. Once in office, Rubio's emergence onto the national scene was handled as carefully as Hillary Clinton's or Barack Obama's, the two celebrity senators who wanted to both take advantage of their stardom and establish good working relationships in a chamber rich in tradition and unkind toward young upstarts who haven't paid their senatorial dues. Any challenge to Rubio's family history, a central part of his appeal to an eventual national audience, meets with a harsh response from a team of communications and political advisers who are far more experienced than the average freshman senator.
Other names will make the rounds as flavors of the month. Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal gave Romney the chance to distinguish himself from Gingrich, and Ryan is a superstar among conservative elites who will back Romney only because they fear the rest of the GOP field (a recent report by a Wisconsin newspaper that state law would allow Ryan to run for both Congress and the vice presidency raised a few eyebrows). Ohio Sen. Rob Portman is mentioned occasionally, though there is little evidence he is overtly preparing for a role so soon after winning election to the upper chamber.
Some Republicans even point to Susana Martinez, the first-term governor of New Mexico; they note with interest that Martinez has attended several Republican National Committee meetings, an unusual effort for someone so new to office. Martinez told a local newspaper reporter last week she isn't interested in the job.
Of Romney's rivals, few seem to be in a position to command real attention as a potential front-runner. Gingrich has openly admitted he would not fit in as someone's underling, and the animosity among Romney, Perry, and Rick Santorum is evident. Only one erstwhile rival -- ex-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- is a possibility. Pawlenty has joined a number of corporate boards that advisers note he can easily quit if Romney comes calling. But Pawlenty feels burned by the presidential process, a top aide said. He's more interested in being considered for a Cabinet post in an eventual Republican administration.
Regardless of whether their favorites want the job as Romney's No. 2 or not, top aides to each potential candidate recognize they might be included on either a long list of candidates tapped for appearance or out of courtesy, or on a much shorter list from which Romney will choose his actual running mate. Without the preparation necessary to appear credible, a candidate's chances may be dismissed now, and diminished in the long run.
And though it remains uncouth to be seen as openly campaigning for the job, the jockeying has most certainly begun -- even before Romney formally locks up the right to pick a candidate.