Rick Santorum's exit from the presidential race this week brings a formal end to a contest that had been over, for all practical purposes, for weeks. It also invites a temporary spotlight on Romney's next task, picking a running mate -- and with it, a glimpse at the future of the national Republican Party.
And based on the emerging consensus around a Republican short list that features rising stars from all corners of the nation, that future is bright. Romney is now the nominee of a party still searching for its identity after George W. Bush's presidency, and the process of choosing a running mate -- and the attendant media attention on the viable options -- will elevate one of a generation of officeholders vying to influence that direction.
The roster of vice presidential candidates stands in stark contrast to what was a weak, lackluster field of presidential retreads. Romney has not won an election since 2002, nor has he held office since early 2007. Santorum lost his last race in 2006. Newt Gingrich, ostensibly still in the race, left office in early 1999.
That field was competing for an electorate that has moved in a decidedly more aggressive, more conservative, and more populist direction. That direction, in turn, marks a departure from Bush's presidency, during which expansion of entitlements angered conservatives and mishandled wars angered just about everyone else. After losing their congressional majorities in 2006, the party embarked on a penetrating soul-search that has yet to resolve itself. The tea party movement was a stab at resolution; it represented a populist rejection of government that Republicans embraced in advance of their 2010 wins. But while it claimed a few victories in 2010, Romney's nomination proves the movement has yet to assert any real control over the GOP.
That's not to say the reaction to Bush hasn't provoked a change in the GOP. It has given rise to a new generation of Republican officeholders, including a good portion of the freshman class first elected in 2010, and infused more conservative members of the House Republican Conference with broader influence. And yet the new generation barely had a representative in the presidential field, with the exception of Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Now, with the primary fight behind him and the vice presidential selection in front of him, Romney has the opportunity to elevate the new generation. More than two dozen candidates have been mentioned, to varying degrees of seriousness, but the common thread that runs through most serious short-list contenders is their relative newness to the national scene -- the clearest indication that the younger generation is poised to take over for the old guard.
Consider the names that most often ascend to the top of pundits' short lists: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell are all young, attractive, and articulate spokesmen for the conservative cause. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio is the only consensus short-lister who comes from the old guard, given his long resume in Washington in both the legislative and executive branches.
The longer list of vice presidential possibilities is replete with newcomers: Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, and Brian Sandoval of Nevada all seem poised for national profiles at some point in their careers. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire gets rave reviews from my colleague Josh Kraushaar. Allies of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington are floating her name, though her candidacy seems unlikely. Even Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose résumé reads like a man 15 years older than he is, can lay claim to the new-generation mantle.
There are plenty of older, more experienced candidates Romney might consider, from former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Others, like Sens. Pat Toomey and John Thune, mesh younger faces with résumés heavy on Washington experience. But they have generated less enthusiasm from conservative media outlets who are pining for a new voice, and they seem more likely to populate Romney's Cabinet, if he gets the chance to form one, than to serve as vice president.
Any presidential campaign is concerned that the vice presidential nominee might overshadow the top of the ticket. This year, even if that doesn't happen, the vice presidential nominee will likely be a sign of the rise of a new Republican generation -- a generation that, after Romney has had his shot, will probably produce the next Republican president.