VP Speculation Reaches Fever Pitch

The field of apparent Republican vice president picks narrows considerably.

If media reports are accurate, we are getting close to the moment when Mitt Romney will announce his choice for vice president. The campaign has said Romney would announce his pick before the Republican National Convention kicks off Aug. 27. The New York Daily News contends that one choice has already been made, according to "insiders": the VP will be a male. NBC News takes it one step further, claiming they can say "with a high degree of confidence" that the campaign has winnowed the final choices down to three people: former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), and House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI).

Yet doubters remain. The Washington Post plays the elimination-by-logic game, noting that many of the previously presumed candidates, namely Condoleezza Rice, Mike Huckabee, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Rick Santorum, Sen. Rand Paul, Jeb Bush and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, have been scheduled to speak at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, FL. Getting a speaking slot at the convention ostensibly eliminates them from consideration. Yet they add two names to the list of possibles compiled by NBC: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The campaign has done its best to keep such speculation at a fever pitch, in order to maximize attention. Part of that speculation includes the idea that Romney might announce his pick during his bus tour through four swing states of Virginia, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina this weekend. Yet the only concrete statement by Romney was intentionally cryptic. Last Sunday he told CNN’s Gloria Borger that “by the third day of the Republican convention, we will nominate a Republican VP.” For those with a burning urge to know, the GOP nominee's campaign is promoting a "Mitt VP" app that will notify Romney's choice to users before an announcement is made to the media. CNN also contends that Wikipedia activity can spike for the chosen candidate the day before his name is officially announced. Yet the Wall Street Journal likely has the best take on the time frame: it speculates that the pick will not be made prior to the end of the Olympics August 12th, again in order to maximize exposure.

What campaign insiders are currently saying (read: teasing) is that the VP pick will have to meet the following criteria: he will have to have the capacity to be president, as well as be ready to rule right now;  he will be a "safe" choice, yet more likable and more conservative than Romney; and he will be a true "second banana" who will not outshine his boss. Who fits the bill? An analysis of each candidate may offer clues:

As a former state governor, Tim Pawlenty brings a level of executive experience to the mix, as well as solid blue collar credentials that could offset Romney's elitist background. He is the son of a truck driver from a former meatpacking town whose mother died when he was 16. He is also the first college graduate in his family, a big hockey fan, and comfortable with the kind of pop culture references that likely elude Romney.

On the baggage side, Pawlenty is likely to irritate some conservatives for supporting a tax on cigarettes he labeled a "health impact fee." In theater parlance, that's a two-fer: conservatives dislike both higher taxes as well as anything that smacks of Nanny Statism. He also has very little charisma, indicated by the fact that he was the first declared presidential candidate to withdraw from the 2012 race. Nor is it likely he has anything resembling a high level of name-recognition. Pawlenty makes for a great "second banana," but he is not a man likely to shake up the election campaign.

Rob Portman is a former House member who worked in both Bush administrations, and he brings solid policy credentials to the mix, highlighted by expertise in spending and budgets, as well as experience in international trade. He has already traveled extensively in support of Romney, stumping and raising money for the campaign in North Carolina, New Hampshire and Ohio, where he maintains an extensive political organization in that critical battleground state.

Yet Portman strikes some as a "conciliatory conservative," without a lot of working class appeal. Both are two of the primary knocks against Romney. Furthermore, his stint as budget director under President George W. Bush would be red meat for an Obama campaign that continues to "blame Bush" in order to divert attention from the president's own economic failures.

Paul Ryan has become the GOP's go-to-guy on the federal budget, offering one of the few realistic visions for whittling down America's massive debt. He is cool under fire, beloved by the Tea Party, and hails from Wisconsin, another swing state. He is also charismatic, which may explain why a poll taken by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling shows that of nearly three dozen potential VP candidates tested in 15 states since mid-May, “none helps Romney improve his position better in the potential running mate’s home state than Ryan in Wisconsin,” according to the Daily Caller. Of the three frontrunners, he is by far the "boldest" potentially game-changing pick Romney could make.

The principle knock on Ryan is that his signature budget plan, which includes reforms to Medicare, is an attack-dog whistle to Democrats. As such, they would undoubtedly reprise the "granny over the cliff" ads they used to kill his budget proposals last year. He is also young, and decided on his own not to run for the top slot this time around, making the idea that he could assume the presidency right away problematic. And the same charisma that helps him may also be a negative, as it would be relatively easy for him to outshine Romney.

Two more candidates merit scrutiny. One is Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Jindal is a solid conservative, and he would be the first Indian-American on a national ticket. He is also charismatic, and has implemented much-needed education reform in his home state. Yet Louisiana's budget remains on shaky ground, despite his efforts to reform it. Furthermore, he has seemingly taken himself out of the race, telling a gathering of conservatives in Florida last weekend that Romney would send a "powerful message" regarding budgetary issues if he nominated Ryan.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is one of the true stars in a Republican party where stars are in short supply. His take-no-prisoners attitude with the media and his matter-of-fact way of speaking energizes many conservatives. Thus, he would stand in stark contrast to Romney's blandness. Yet like Ryan, Christie also took a pass on running for president saying he wasn't ready, and the same brashness that endears him to many could prove to be a liability in a tight race with a mainstream media looking to magnify any mistake on the Republican side of the ledger. Furthermore, as noted here and here, Christie has a blind spot regarding Islamic radicalism.

Other candidates seemingly out of the race include Florida Senator Marco Rubio, whose charisma, Latino background, and Florida swing state potential may be offset by his lack of experience; General David Petraeus, whose national security credentials are offset by his stated lack of political ambition; and Condoleeza Rice whose popularity, charisma, experience, along with her race and gender, may be offset by her tenure in the Bush administration. Moreover, Rice has also said she's not interested in the job.

All of the people here, to varying degrees represent viable choices for the VP slot. If there is something that would pull the Romney camp in one direction or the other, it may boil down to a few overall considerations. Does Romney believe he needs an injection of charisma into his campaign or not? Would he prefer someone better suited to help him win the election, or someone more suited to the duties of the office once the election is won? Does he embrace Tea Party conservatism, or is he more comfortable with the GOP establishment?

Right now the campaign is getting a lot of mileage out of the process itself. Ironically, that says something as well: if excitement must be generated by speculation over a vice presidential candidate, what does that say about the presidential candidate? If genuine buzz is to be generated between now and November, it is Mr. Romney himself who must eventually rise to the occasion.

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