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.