The stark contrast between a weak Republican presidential field and the strong, deep bench that will make up the party's future stars has driven some GOP strategists to distraction. But the eventual nominee, likely Mitt Romney, will have the unique opportunity to elevate one of those stars by tapping him or her as the vice presidential nominee.
Picking a running mate is more art than science. It requires a delicate weighing of factors like personality, electability, geographic appeal, and -- perhaps most importantly -- the danger that a vice presidential nominee overshadows or embarrasses the top of the ticket.
Romney hasn't secured the nomination yet, but as he's the clear front-runner, we'll assume for the sake of argument that he eventually gets the 1,144 delegates needed to win. With the above factors in mind, along with our all-important gut instinct, we rank the potential vice presidential contenders as Romney's team might see them:
THE TOP TIER
|Florida Sen. Marco Rubio
On paper, this is a no-brainer. He's from a must-win battleground state, would be the first Hispanic on a national ticket, and would energize the conservative base. His speech last week at the Hispanic Leadership Network conference was received enthusiastically, and he's been extremely careful managing his national image. But he hasn't received the full vetting that others with more national attention have gone through, which makes some party strategists nervous.
|Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell
There is no Republican path to victory that doesn't include Virginia, and putting a governor with a 62 percent approval rating in the Commonwealth on the ticket would work wonders. McDonnell has been studying up on issues beyond his normal portfolio, and his profile as head of the Republican Governors Association means he's well-known to the money men who matter. He's got a good reputation with conservatives, too. But at a time when minorities are growing as a percentage of the national electorate, how much do Republicans want to bank on a ticket that features two white males?
|Ohio Sen. Rob Portman
Just a year into his first term, Portman is already a serious player in the Senate Republican Conference, and his experience in government gives him a gravitas few other candidates could match. His sizable winning percentage last year in swing state Ohio only adds to his appeal. He's not the most charismatic politician, but Portman would be a safe choice for Romney's team.
|New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
If the running mate's primary job is to prosecute the case against the other side, it'd be hard to find a better fit than the bombastic former prosecutor who so often takes on his own rivals. But the reason Christie appeals to so many Republicans -- his penchant for forcefully, sometimes impolitically, flaying his opponents -- could be exactly what makes Romney's team pause. If discretion is the better part of vice presidential valor, Christie may have to wait to run for president himself.
|Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Republicans need not worry about Pawlenty's vetting process: After all, he's gone through it already when John McCain considered picking him in 2008. Pawlenty doesn't bring the swing-state credibility that Rubio or Portman does, but he would be a safe choice who's well-versed in national issues, a pick that wouldn't pose a major risk to Romney's campaign. Insiders say the two are friendly, an underappreciated factor. But after Pawlenty pulled punches against Romney over the summer, picking him would mean serious debate prep in advance of a meeting with Joe Biden.
THE PLAUSIBLE ALTERNATIVES
|South Dakota Sen. John Thune
Tall, handsome, a reliable conservative, Thune has the looks of a future national star. He could even give Obama a run for his money on the basketball court -- Thune plays as much as the president does. And a timely endorsement before the Iowa caucuses may have endeared him to Romney's team. Still, Republicans don't need any help winning South Dakota, and if Thune's team thinks they would have a better shot on their own in 2016, they might do more to distance themselves from serious consideration.
|Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan
Face it, Romney is going to be asked about Ryan's budget plan. So why not have the articulate young House Budget chairman who wrote the thing there to defend it? Ryan would help both with the conservative base and with the intellectual elite who guard Ronald Reagan's legacy. But picking him certainly risks making the race a referendum on something other than President Obama -- exactly the opposite of what Republicans want to do right now.
|Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal
To their credit, Republicans have established a new cadre of nonwhite leaders that will help present a new, more diverse face of the party. What stands out about most of those new leaders is how inexperienced they are. Jindal is the exception. He has built a policy-heavy portfolio that would make him a serious candidate for national office in his own right. But he endorsed Rick Perry, which won't help in RomneyLand. And his initial foray onto the national stage, the 2009 State of the Union response, could make one wonder whether he's ready for prime time.
|Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels
His response to the State of the Union had Republicans wistful once again as they pondered what might have been. Daniels is a major force in the Republican policy world, and the conservative and intellectual bases of the party would love him almost as much as they'd love Ryan. Perhaps the only drawback is Daniels's apparent reluctance to shine on a national stage -- the very thing that let so many Republicans down when he decided not to run last year.
THE LONG SHOTS
|New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez
Hispanic, check. Not of Washington, check. New and different face of the party in the Mountain West, a region Republicans need to win back, check. But the New Mexico governor has been unusually vocal about how little she wants the job. If Romney wants to throw a Hail Mary, Martinez would grab Palin-esque attention, without some of the pitfalls Palin succumbed to. But it's far more likely she's focusing on reelection in 2014, with an eye on the national stage in 2016.
|Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval
His appeal is similar to Rubio's -- young, Hispanic, and from a swing state, albeit with a lower national profile -- and he's got the added bonus of being 2,000 miles from Washington. But Sandoval, and Martinez for that matter, face major budget deficits in their own states, and they've only been in office for a year. If they can turn their states around, expect them to get star turns when the next Republican nomination opens up.
|Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño
Just to be clear, this one probably isn't going to happen. But Fortuno, who faces a difficult re-election bid of his own this year, was the Republican Party's rising young Hispanic star before Rubio, Martinez and Sandoval even made a bleep on the national radar. And unlike those three, he actually endorsed Romney. If he were from a state with actual electoral votes, Fortuño would be higher on the list.
Remember when John Kerry was reportedly contemplating former Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines? (How would that be playing right about now?) Or when McCain chose some unknown governor from Alaska? Perhaps Romney will leave it up to the delegates, as when the 1876 Republican convention picked New York Rep. William Wheeler (Ohio Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes was heard to remark: "I am ashamed to say, who is Wheeler?"). Romney's team will make a preliminary list of names far longer than this one, and there's a good chance the eventual nominee is someone we haven't even considered.
Photos (top to bottom):
Rubio: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
McDonnell: Steve Helber/AP
Portman: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Christie:William B. Plowman/AP
Thune: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Ryan: Freddie Lee/AP
Martinez: John Raoux/AP
Sandoval: Cathleen Allison/AP
Fortuño: Michael Dwyer/AP