Above all, do no harm. That's the first rule of medicine, and it's the first rule for any potential vice presidential nominee to remember.
It's amazing just how much Sarah Palin and Rick Perry stumbling in their early moments in the national spotlight informed top Republicans. Many are convinced that the party's eventual nominee won't be able to afford a mistake in picking a vice president, and that troublesome itch lives in the back of their minds as they consider some of the less-well-known contenders. If the media gets surprised, they'll content themselves with digging up dirt, and it could be 2008 all over again.
Mitt 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 that in mind, we rank the potential Republican vice presidential contenders as Romney's team might see them today:
(Arrows indicate who's trending since our first edition of Veepstakes Power Rankings)
THE TOP TIER
|Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell
McDonnell preserved his spot on the short list by backing off a controversial antiabortion measure in Virginia, but he didn't emerge entirely unscathed. The incident refocused attention on McDonnell's conservative background -- and Democrats would surely dredge up the 1989 thesis he wrote at Regent University. But if Romney's team decides they must win the Commonwealth, McDonnell's approval rating in the 60s has to look attractive.
|Florida Sen. Marco Rubio
Rubio's biggest downside, and the reason he's dropped a spot in our rankings, is his good fortune in 2010. He skated into office without much of his past being vetted in the media. That would change in a hurry if he's tapped for the vice presidency, and coming four years after Sarah Palin had such trouble adjusting to harsh scrutiny, that's a very real concern for some Republicans. After all, Tallahassee has its own secrets. Rubio's team, to their credit, zealously guards their man's narrative -- but some Republicans worry about thrusting someone so young and untested onto the national stage.
|New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
Christie is popular with Republicans because he exudes the one thing Romney will never be able to: Authenticity. Christie's penchant for yelling at some opponents and calling others stupid is part of what got him elected in the first place. But two white guys from the Northeast may not be the image Romney's team is going for. Still, for all his demurrals, his recent veto of same-sex marriage legislation keeps his name in the game.
|Ohio Sen. Rob Portman
Sometimes, slow and steady really does win the race. Portman is never going to send chills down the spine of the Republican Party, but he oozes competence, and a lack of competence in government lies at the core of voter anger. Portman wouldn't overshadow the top of the ticket, the way Palin did and Rubio or Christie might; and, as a known Washington commodity, he checks the box among those looking for Romney to make his first presidential decision.
|Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal
Perhaps if Jindal had planned his primary endorsement a bit better, he would be higher on the list. Jindal brings almost everything Rubio would -- youth, diversity, conservative credentials -- without the specter of the unknown and with an added policy background that's hard to match outside Rep. Paul Ryan's office (see below). If only he hadn't endorsed Rick Perry for president.
|Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan
The Budget Committee chairman has taken a decidedly more bullish tone on Romney lately, saying in a recent interview that the front-runner is "well on his way to the nomination." Ryan likes Romney's tax plan as much as Romney likes the Ryan budget. And while Ryan said no to a presidential campaign of his own (he has young kids), perhaps the short sprint of a post-convention campaign would change his mind. Democrats will saddle Romney with the Ryan budget; why not win favor with conservatives by picking him?
THE PLAUSIBLE ALTERNATIVES
|Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty
He continues to serve as one of Romney's top surrogates on the trail, endearing himself to Boston by hopping on daily conference calls and flying around the country to headline second-tier events. His willingness to embrace the role of team player makes him a viable choice. But we still have trouble imagining a ticket of two white, middle-aged, rhetorically challenged ex-governors doing much to inspire the Republican base -- much less win over minorities and independents.
|Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey
We left Toomey off our first list, but in the intervening weeks he's getting a little buzz, and a bit of a push from certain circles on Capitol Hill. As Romney blasted Rick Santorum for backing Arlen Specter in 2004, Toomey got to play the conservative alternative to the hated liberal Specter. Still, when it comes to white male Republicans from the Northeast, why pick Toomey over Christie?
|Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels
The Hoosier governor, like Pawlenty, would do very little to bring balance to the ticket. And unlike Pawlenty, Daniels has demonstrated little interest in the nonstop national spotlight that accompanies presidential campaigning. But Daniels, like Portman, brings a gravitas that would play well on the editorial pages.
|Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers
Like Toomey, we left McMorris Rodgers off our first list. Like Toomey, we got a call from a McMorris Rodgers ally urging us to reconsider. And they have a point: She would bring age, regional, and gender balance to the ticket, and she has a policy portfolio that's deeper than Palin's. But picking an unknown House member from a state Romney won't win might smell too much of desperation for McMorris Rodgers to make the serious short list.
On The Bubble: South Dakota Sen. John Thune, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez,
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño.
Photos (top to bottom):
McDonnell: Steve Helber/AP
Rubio: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
Christie:William B. Plowman/AP
Portman: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Ryan: Freddie Lee/AP
Toomey: J. Scott Applewhite/AP
McMorris Rodgers: handout (official portrait by Eric Connolly)