Politics: White House

Laughs from the WH Correspondents’ Dinner

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April 28, 2011, 5:07 p.m.

NJ Gov. Chris Christie (R) “was something of an all-star” when he walked in­to a small GOP cam­paign of­fice in Wil­li­am­s­port, PA, “to the cheers of about 75 people.” Christie was there to cam­paign for PA AG/GOV nom­in­ee Tom Corbett (R), who, like Christie, is an ex-U.S. atty.

Corbett has been lead­ing in the polls against Al­legheny Co. Ex­ec. Dan Otor­ano (D), but “Christie was the main at­trac­tion at this event,” where loc­als fa­mil­i­ar with the tough-talk­ing, Jer­sey guy gov. from cable news shows and vir­al in­ter­net videos “rushed to shake his hand.” Many thought should run for WH ‘12, “no mat­ter how many times he says he’s not in­ter­ested.”

The rally was the latest stop for Christie, who has spent much of the last month on the stump to drum up pub­li­city and raise money for GOP can­did­ates across the coun­try. Talk of Christie as a WH ‘12 con­tender “has only grown with his travels.” On 10/8, con­ser­vat­ive au­thor Ann Coulter “joined the chor­us,” say­ing Christie has to run for WH ‘12 “for his coun­try.”

In his speech, Christie avoided the top­ic, fo­cus­ing in­stead on his battles with NJ Dems and com­par­ing Corbett’s cam­paign against Onor­ato to his ‘09 cam­paign against ex-NJ Gov. Jon Corz­ine (D), whom he re­peatedly de­scribed as “des­per­ate.” Christie: “When you get the op­por­tun­ity to lead, folks like Tom and I know how to grab the reins and lead” (Fried­man, Ne­wark Star-Ledger, 10/12).

Seni­or Re­pub­lic­ans may be un­will­ing to pub­licly call the pres­id­en­tial nom­in­at­ing cam­paign fin­ished, but the con­sensus is that Mitt Rom­ney will be the party’s can­did­ate against Pres­id­ent Obama later this year. As Rom­ney works to­ward the 1,144 del­eg­ates he needs to form­ally lock up his party’s nom­in­a­tion, an­oth­er, far less form­al and far more se­cret­ive cam­paign is get­ting un­der way — the cam­paign to be­come Rom­ney’s vice pres­id­en­tial run­ning mate.

None of the can­did­ates jock­ey­ing in this second con­test will ad­mit pub­licly that they want the job. In­stead, their ad­visers and fans are work­ing di­li­gently to make the case to Rom­ney’s team, to put their can­did­ates in a po­s­i­tion to im­press the nom­in­ee and to be ready to an­swer if and when Rom­ney calls their name.

A hand­ful of these can­did­ates’ ad­visers and sup­port­ers, who spoke on the con­di­tion of an­onym­ity in or­der to share de­tails of a pro­cess usu­ally con­duc­ted be­hind closed doors, de­scribed three areas of fo­cus:

— Can­did­ates must stake out policy ter­rit­ory they can call their own be­fore vice pres­id­en­tial spec­u­la­tion col­ors any move they make.

— They must mas­ter of a wide range of policy po­s­i­tions, in or­der to pre­pare for the harsh glare of the na­tion­al spot­light (“We’re not go­ing to have a Rick Perry situ­ation,” said one ad­viser to a po­ten­tial vice pres­id­en­tial short-lister).

— They must make the case that they have something to bring to the table, wheth­er through their ap­peal to spe­cif­ic geo­graph­ic or elect­or­al groups or through their sheer work eth­ic.

Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing those in Rom­ney’s camp, don’t be­lieve the 2012 elec­tion will be de­cided by such a nar­row mar­gin that the vice pres­id­en­tial se­lec­tion would make the win­ning dif­fer­ence. And they cer­tainly don’t see them­selves run­ning so far be­hind that, like Sen. John Mc­Cain in 2008, they feel forced to pick someone so far out­side the main­stream that he or she provides an op­por­tun­ity to shake up the race. That would seem to ar­gue for a safe pick, someone who con­veys a sense of sta­bil­ity and se­cur­ity, with maybe a little polit­ic­al be­ne­fit on the side.

At the same time, that sense does not au­gur well for any long shots hop­ing to be scooped up from well out­side the es­tab­lish­ment. Burned by Sarah Pal­in in 2008 and in­formed by Perry’s harsh in­tro­duc­tion to the na­tion­al stage, mem­bers of Wash­ing­ton’s Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment will urge Rom­ney to pick someone who, above all, will do no harm.

Sev­er­al prom­in­ent Rom­ney sur­rog­ates are widely seen as po­ten­tial vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees. Rom­ney has traveled ex­tens­ively through Iowa and New Hamp­shire with New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie, something aides to oth­er po­ten­tial can­did­ates have noted with jeal­ousy. Christie, a rising star in the Re­pub­lic­an Party, ser­i­ously con­tem­plated run­ning for pres­id­ent. And he has said he would ac­cept his party’s vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion if Rom­ney came call­ing, an ob­vi­ous, but sur­pris­ingly rare, ad­mis­sion in a back­room race fre­quently marked by false mod­esty.

At the height of former House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich’s rise to the top of the GOP field, Rom­ney rolled out an en­dorse­ment from South Dakota Sen. John Thune, a con­ser­vat­ive well-known to Iowa Re­pub­lic­ans. Thune ad­visers say privately that the nod proved crit­ic­al to Rom­ney’s caucus vic­tory (then again, fol­low­ing an eight-vote win in Iowa, any­one who en­dorsed Rom­ney gets to claim cred­it for his vic­tory). Thune has also staked out bona fides on for­eign policy; as a mem­ber of Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship, he spear­headed the GOP’s po­s­i­tion on the START Treaty earli­er this year.

Vir­gin­ia Gov. Bob Mc­Don­nell has not form­ally en­dorsed Rom­ney, though he has hin­ted strongly that he will vote for Rom­ney in Vir­gin­ia’s March 6 primary. But as head of the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation, a post that helped launch Rom­ney as a na­tion­al can­did­ate in 2006, Mc­Don­nell has built him­self a fol­low­ing among con­ser­vat­ive circles. He has traveled to New Hamp­shire, and he’ll be in South Car­o­lina this week­end, trips that are dif­fi­cult to see as any­thing oth­er than aimed at boost­ing his na­tion­al pres­ence. And Mc­Don­nell is re­ceiv­ing oc­ca­sion­al brief­ings to bet­ter ac­quaint him­self with is­sues he doesn’t or­din­ar­ily deal with, a top ad­viser said.

Per­haps the biggest ele­phant in the room is also the young­est — Sen. Marco Ru­bio, the Flor­ida con­ser­vat­ive whose pres­ence on the na­tion­al scene has some Re­pub­lic­ans hop­ing they can re­pair dam­aged re­la­tions with His­pan­ic voters. Ru­bio’s ad­visers in­sist he is neither in­ter­ested nor ex­pect­ing to be asked, but they have put him in a po­s­i­tion to make the list.

Ru­bio has worked to es­tab­lish him­self as a com­mu­nic­at­or of the GOP’s na­tion­al mes­sage, and un­til Rom­ney picks a run­ning mate, everything Ru­bio does will be viewed through the prism of a po­ten­tial vice pres­id­en­tial can­did­acy, his ad­visers re­cog­nize. They con­sciously sought to carve out Ru­bio’s own areas of policy ex­pert­ise last year, in areas like hu­man traf­fick­ing and gov­ern­ment spend­ing (he sent a let­ter to Pres­id­ent Obama last week that got more press at­ten­tion than a sim­il­ar missive from any oth­er sen­at­or would have re­ceived), so that he could more cred­ibly ar­gue that not every ac­tion was driv­en by a lust for high­er of­fice.

Ru­bio’s aides zeal­ously guard his im­age and repu­ta­tion. Once in of­fice, Ru­bio’s emer­gence onto the na­tion­al scene was handled as care­fully as Hil­lary Clin­ton’s or Barack Obama’s, the two celebrity sen­at­ors who wanted to both take ad­vant­age of their star­dom and es­tab­lish good work­ing re­la­tion­ships in a cham­ber rich in tra­di­tion and un­kind to­ward young up­starts who haven’t paid their sen­at­ori­al dues. Any chal­lenge to Ru­bio’s fam­ily his­tory, a cent­ral part of his ap­peal to an even­tu­al na­tion­al audi­ence, meets with a harsh re­sponse from a team of com­mu­nic­a­tions and polit­ic­al ad­visers who are far more ex­per­i­enced than the av­er­age fresh­man sen­at­or.

Oth­er names will make the rounds as fla­vors of the month. Rep. Paul Ry­an’s budget pro­pos­al gave Rom­ney the chance to dis­tin­guish him­self from Gin­grich, and Ry­an is a su­per­star among con­ser­vat­ive elites who will back Rom­ney only be­cause they fear the rest of the GOP field (a re­cent re­port by a Wis­con­sin news­pa­per that state law would al­low Ry­an to run for both Con­gress and the vice pres­id­ency raised a few eye­brows). Ohio Sen. Rob Port­man is men­tioned oc­ca­sion­ally, though there is little evid­ence he is overtly pre­par­ing for a role so soon after win­ning elec­tion to the up­per cham­ber.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans even point to Susana Mar­tinez, the first-term gov­ernor of New Mex­ico; they note with in­terest that Mar­tinez has at­ten­ded sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee meet­ings, an un­usu­al ef­fort for someone so new to of­fice. Mar­tinez told a loc­al news­pa­per re­port­er last week she isn’t in­ter­ested in the job.

Of Rom­ney’s rivals, few seem to be in a po­s­i­tion to com­mand real at­ten­tion as a po­ten­tial front-run­ner. Gin­grich has openly ad­mit­ted he would not fit in as someone’s un­der­ling, and the an­im­os­ity among Rom­ney, Perry, and Rick San­tor­um is evid­ent. Only one erstwhile rival — ex-Min­nesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — is a pos­sib­il­ity. Pawlenty has joined a num­ber of cor­por­ate boards that ad­visers note he can eas­ily quit if Rom­ney comes call­ing. But Pawlenty feels burned by the pres­id­en­tial pro­cess, a top aide said. He’s more in­ter­ested in be­ing con­sidered for a Cab­in­et post in an even­tu­al Re­pub­lic­an ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Re­gard­less of wheth­er their fa­vor­ites want the job as Rom­ney’s No. 2 or not, top aides to each po­ten­tial can­did­ate re­cog­nize they might be in­cluded on either a long list of can­did­ates tapped for ap­pear­ance or out of cour­tesy, or on a much short­er list from which Rom­ney will choose his ac­tu­al run­ning mate. Without the pre­par­a­tion ne­ces­sary to ap­pear cred­ible, a can­did­ate’s chances may be dis­missed now, and di­min­ished in the long run.

And though it re­mains un­couth to be seen as openly cam­paign­ing for the job, the jock­ey­ing has most cer­tainly be­gun — even be­fore Rom­ney form­ally locks up the right to pick a can­did­ate.

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