The clearest sign that the race for the Republican presidential nomination is over is the media's newfound obsession with the Veepstakes. In the past few weeks, we've counted 27 different Republicans named in various outlets as potential running mates, from the absurd (Donald Trump) to the impractical (Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno) to the merely unlikely (Chris Christie, say, or Nikki Haley).
In our monthly rankings, we consider our cumulative reporting, analysis, and, of course, our own gut feelings. The most likely Mitt Romney suitor holds the coveted No. 1 spot. But virtually anyone on the list is a reasonable contender; if recent history is any guide, a surprise could be in the works. Just think of Geraldine Ferraro, Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp, Joe Lieberman, Dick Cheney, and Sarah Palin-all of whom weren't on anyone's short list just months before they were picked.
Fool's errand though it might be, the outlines of a real short list are beginning to form.
|Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (previous ranking: 6)
Ranking the Veepstakes is an exercise in measuring buzz. And after Romney campaigned with Ryan en route to winning the Wisconsin primary, no one's buzz surged more than Ryan's. Some might shy away from Ryan because Democrats have made hay over his budget proposal, but Romney is tied to that proposal already, so why not harness the advantages he brings in rallying the conservative base? Ryan's stock is up, and heading further north.
|Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (previous ranking: 2)
Like Ryan, Rubio is an exciting option. But Republicans are getting over their initial glee at the prospect of putting a young, conservative Hispanic on the ticket, and a certain skepticism is seeping into the Rubio buzz. It's not that Republicans don't see him as an eventual national candidate (most do), it's that they wonder whether he's prepared for the spotlight this time around. Rubio's attractiveness as a candidate keeps him high on the list, but very real GOP concerns mean he should be in second place.
|Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (previous ranking: 1)
If buzz around Ryan is up, buzz around McDonnell has taken a nose dive. He hasn't done anything to deserve it; unlike candidates who profess disinterest in the job, McDonnell has said he would accept if asked. But herein lies the peril of the Veepstakes: A candidate can only sustain media interest for so long before he becomes old news. McDonnell still brings plenty of good qualities to the table, and he's been preparing more than most other potential contenders. Picking McDonnell would be a conventional, safe answer for Romney, which is why we feel his stock is undervalued today.
|Ohio Sen. Rob Portman (previous ranking: 4)
What do Ryan, Rubio, and McDonnell have in common? They're all members of the new wave of Republicanism taking hold in the base. Portman, by contrast, is a symbol of the Grand Old Party, emphasis on the "old": He's been in Washington for decades, in both the legislative and executive branches. Picking him would get plaudits from the pundits, but the conservative base might yawn-or worse. After all, Portman entertained the idea of revenue increases as part of the debt-ceiling "grand bargain" that never was. If Romney wants favorable op-eds, he'll choose Portman. If Romney wants a little excitement on the ticket, Portman brings as much as Lloyd Bentsen did in 1988 -- that is to say, not much.
|New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (previous rank: 3)
For a generic Republican, Christie would be an outstanding vice presidential pick. His reputation for confronting the parts of government his party doesn't like stands out at a time when Americans distrust their institutions to such a degree. And one could hardly help but see national overtures to his very public trip to Israel, where even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted about their meeting. But Romney isn't a generic Republican, and unfortunately for Christie, two northeastern Republicans on the same ticket might leave some social conservatives uneasy. Picking Christie could be akin to Bill Clinton picking Tennessee neighbor Al Gore in 1992, but that's calling the glass half-full.
|New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte (previous rank: NR)
When Peggy Noonan got in trouble in 2008 for questioning on a hot mic the wisdom of picking Palin, she said she did so because there were women of more stature out there, citing Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison as an example. Ayotte is in the same boat as Hutchison, albeit with less time in the Senate: She was an attorney general who handled high-profile cases, she's from a state Republicans would like to put back in their column, and she could play a big role in the future of the GOP, especially in the Northeast. But like Christie, she has a geography problem, and conservatives tried to oust her in her 2010 primary. Ayotte's a long shot for the moment.
|Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (previous rank: 5)
If Romney picks a minority or a woman, the most cynical media figures will assume the nominee's race or gender were the main considerations. That would be a mistake with Jindal, who is among the Republican Party's deepest thinkers on a handful of issues (He just shepherded big-time education reform through the legislature, adding to his portfolio of government reforms). But Jindal very publicly chose Rick Perry over Romney in the primaries, and politicians have long memories. Plus, his first foray onto the national scene in 2009-responding to President Obama on prime-time television-left something to be desired. Jindal's more likely to be a 2016 contender (He's young enough that he could even wait until 2020).
|Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (previous rank: 7)
Pawlenty is a safe choice, and by all accounts he and Romney get along well together. But he doesn't bring much that's new or exciting, and it's not clear that he really wants the job. Sure, any time someone says no in public we only hear desperate cries of "Yes! Yes, please pick me!" When Pawlenty says it -- or doesn't actually say anything -- we read it as greater interest in a Cabinet post rather than the vice presidency.
|Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey (previous rank: 8)
Unquestionable conservative credentials, status as a winner in a blue state, and a little buzz in Washington circles keeps Toomey on our list this month. He's ably played the effective, and politically difficult, role of Romney pseudo-surrogate, bashing Rick Santorum for supporting Arlen Specter in 2006 (see, politicians have long memories) without explicitly backing Romney over the local boy. But Toomey has room to grow, and there's not much of a compelling reason to pick him over a similar contender like Christie.
|The Wild Card
No one saw Palin coming. No one saw Cheney getting the nod. Few expected Lieberman or Gore or Ferraro as ticket-mates. Among the myriad potentially serious candidates who have emerged so far, the thread common to so many is that they represent a new face for the Republican Party. Between Sens. John Thune and Rand Paul, Govs. Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez, and half a dozen others, the Republican field in 2016 -- if Romney loses -- will be very strong. They have room to grow and challenges to overcome, but Romney's long list very likely includes the next Republican president.
On The Bubble : Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño and - fortunately - not Donald Trump.
Photos (top to bottom):
Ryan: Freddie Lee/AP
Rubio: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
McDonnell: Steve Helber/AP
Portman: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Christie:William B. Plowman/AP
Ayotte: Charles Dharapak/AP
Toomey: J. Scott Applewhite/AP