Here's the most telling evidence of Republican enthusiasm over Mitt Romney's momentum: Candidates who once pooh-poohed the idea of becoming Romney's running mate are suddenly changing their tune.
There have always been a few politicians all but overtly campaigning for the job. Suddenly, the top tier looks a lot more like they're auditioning for the job -- and that indicates the post is worth a whole lot more than a bucket of warm spit.
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.
|Ohio Sen. Rob Portman (previous ranking: 1)
North Carolina has become the testing ground where potential vice presidential contenders pose for the camera. After opening Romney's Ohio campaign headquarters in Columbus this weekend, Portman will be the latest to travel to the Tar Heel State, headlining a Romney fundraiser and a separate political event in the coming days. Portman still fits the "boring white guy" meme, and he definitely passes the gravitas test -- a test of which Romney is acutely aware. But is he too similar to the presidential nominee? Sometimes playing not to lose is the perfect way to bleed away momentum.
|Ex-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (previous ranking: 5)
Pawlenty is getting more attention than conventional wisdom holds, according to our sources. He was once angling for a spot in Romney's Cabinet; now, he's sounding like he wants the job. "I think I can help [Romney] in other ways like this, being a volunteer for his campaign. But obviously anybody would be honored if asked," Pawlenty told NBC News last weekend in North Carolina (the testing ground!). That's a far cry from "take my name off the list," which had been his go-to line. Pawlenty matches the same "boring white guy" meme, and he and Romney have a real rapport. What may be most telling is that some of Pawlenty's closest advisers are staying mum on his prospects.
|Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (previous ranking: 4)
Ryan headed -- guess where? -- to Raleigh for an economic roundtable last week, and it didn't escape our notice that the Romney campaign touted the North Carolina trip. Romney didn't know Ryan until the campaign began, but press reports indicate the presidential candidate is somewhat taken by the young budget maven. We still believe any hesitation about doubling down on the Ryan budget misses the point -- Democrats will hit Romney on Ryan's budget anyway, so why not get the benefit of choosing a serious candidate (gravitas, check!) who excites the base (bonus, check!) and hails from a state that's supposed to be on the table (electoral map, check!)? Ryan makes more sense, and may be closer to Romney, than most people believe.
|Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (previous ranking: 2)
You'll never guess where Jindal traveled last month, just after Romney clinched the vice presidential nomination. OK, he was in Charlotte for a Republican Governors Association meeting, but still, he was in North Carolina. Think of Jindal as Scott Walker without the political baggage Walker's recent recall election wrought. Jindal has been on the leading edge of Republican reform efforts on education, labor, and health care, he's young and a relatively fresh face, and he's clearly interested in the job (see a recent CNN interview in which Jindal offered his own resume rather than a denial). Underestimate Jindal's chances at your own peril.
|Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (previous rank: 3)
The same questions about Rubio's relatively thin resume we raised months ago remain. But no one has consistently campaigned for the job as much as Rubio has -- despite his staff's denial. Even if he's not picked, Rubio wants to be a short-lister. Watch the press coverage later this month surrounding his autobiography's release, something that will generate another round of buzzy speculation. Oh, and did we mention his book tour, which features stops in Florida, Virginia, South Carolina (2016 anyone?) and -- you guessed it -- North Carolina?
|The Wild Card (previous rank: 6)
Remember what we said last month -- Ferraro, Quayle, Kemp, Cheney, and Palin were all surprise picks. Romney may reach outside the world of politics to choose a running mate. But three of those candidates -- Ferraro, Kemp, and Palin -- were made from a position of weakness, and Romney's much stronger than Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, or John McCain ever were. The one thing we know for certain: Given HP's recent layoffs of 30,000 workers, we can safely take Meg Whitman off the list.
|South Dakota Sen. John Thune (previous rank: OTB)
We've consistently underrated Thune's potential given his apparent disinterest in the job. But he has a Senate record, the good graces of conservatives, and the policy chops (he led Senate Republicans' efforts on the START Treaty, for one thing) to make an intriguing pick. He still sees it as a long shot -- "I don’t expect that to happen but I don’t think you never say never when it comes to serving your country," he told reporters late last month -- but he's certainly getting more buzz in knowledgeable D.C. circles now than he had in previous months.
|Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (previous rank: 9)
No one has fallen more over the last few months than the Virginia governor. Events (mostly) out of his control have conspired to make McDonnell the perfect foil for Democrats' "war on women" meme. But to his credit he's still popular in his home state, which means he's not completely out of the picture yet. Still, McDonnell's future may lie within his home state, especially if Sen. Mark Warner starts looking longingly at McDonnell's current job and if McDonnell has any interest in the U.S. Senate.
|Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (previous rank: 7)
The retiring Indiana governor begins the long-shot segment of the list. Daniels's denials are more credible than most other contenders, but he's a serious voice within the Republican Party. Still, he stepped away from a presidential bid because he didn't want to put his family through the national wringer. They'd get all the negative attention Daniels feared if Romney gives him the nod.
|New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte (previous ranking: 10)
If Romney wants to include a woman on his short list, Ayotte is the most likely name to crop up. She's been a frequent Romney surrogate, but her profile isn't perfect -- remember, she narrowly escaped a challenge from the right in her 2010 Senate bid. Expect Ayotte's profile to grow within a Senate Republican Conference that is short of women spokespeople.
On the Bubble: Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers; Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey; New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño; and - fortunately - not Donald Trump.
Portman: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Ryan: Freddie Lee/AP
Rubio: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
McDonnell: Steve Helber/AP
Ayotte: Charles Dharapak/AP