Ahead of Pennsylvania's primary Tuesday, the likely Republican presidential nominee has been campaigning in the state with a man at the center of running-mate speculation — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. But Mitt Romney hasn't said much about whom he might name as his vice presidential choice.
Romney has said he appointed a longtime aide to handle the process and that he hasn't yet discussed making a list of potential candidates. But just about everyone else in politics is discussing it. And the men at the top of that list are asked about it a lot.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — a Tea Party favorite and early Romney supporter — seems to have ruled it out, telling one inquirer that people might not find his personality "best suited to being No. 2." When other short-listers are asked whether they'd accept the position — Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Florida's Rubio — all seem to leave the door open, without answering directly.
'Don't Blow It'
There's no formula for picking a running mate. Some of those names might help Romney win an important state or reach out to a key voting group, like Hispanics. But there is one bottom line, says Gary Bauer, a social conservative leader and one-time Republican presidential candidate: "My advice is don't blow it."
Romney is working hard to win over the conservative activists who weren't with him in the primaries. He gave a big speech at the NRA this month and is scheduled to speak at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University next month.
But there's surprisingly little pressure now on Romney to pick a recognized social conservative as vice president, like a Rick Santorum or a Mike Huckabee. Bauer says that's because there is no one on Romney's short list whom conservatives would reject.
"I don't see anybody being mentioned who is wrong on the values issues, who is wrong on the need for a strong national defense [or] who is questionable on the size of government," Bauer says. "When [John] McCain ran, there were some people being mentioned that were pro-choice on the abortion issue ... and there was a collective sigh of relief when he went with Sarah Palin. I don't see that now."
Lessons From McCain-Palin
Four years ago, McCain wanted to run with his friend Sen. Joe Lieberman, who, as Bauer points out, supported abortion rights. The base wouldn't have it. McCain was also running behind Barack Obama at the time, and the idea was to create a dynamic moment in the campaign with the choice of then-Alaska Gov. Palin.
"We were behind, we made decisions under political pressure, and I think that there [are] a lot of lessons to be learned from that," says Steven Schmidt, McCain's top strategist at the time.
Schmidt says the circumstances for Romney are much better, and he's more competitive financially and politically than McCain was at this time four years ago.
"We were so desperate to come up with a way to win, and, you know, that led to the picking of Gov. Palin," he says. "When you look at the Romney campaign right now, I think that the lessons from 2008 won't be lost on them. They'll run a very, very tight process, and the result will be ... someone who is ready and universally recognized as ready to be commander in chief from day one."
That's the most important thing about choosing a running mate, whether Romney wants that person to help him to win a state or an ethnic group, or to reinforce his own brand.
Veterans of vice-president vetting say it is a mistake to overdo the political calculations, and the most important qualification for a vice presidential candidate is a closet free of skeletons and the ability to do the job — of president — at a moment's notice.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
We have entered the period of the Great Mentioning. The names of vice presidential possibilities will be mentioned coming and going from now until the Republican convention at the end of the summer.
MONTAGNE: We don't know that any of the names will become Mitt Romney's choice. The last two Republican choices, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin, were both surprise picks.
INSKEEP: But this is, at the least, a chance for Romney to build up his party's rising stars and also suggest what he stands for.
MONTAGNE: In Pennsylvania yesterday, Romney campaigned alongside one of the leading possibilities, Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Romney himself isn't saying much about his decision to pick a vice president.
MITT ROMNEY: We really haven't had a discussion yet of putting together a list or evaluating various candidates.
LIASSON: Maybe not, but just about everyone else in politics is having that discussion. The men - and they are all men at the moment - at the top of the V.P. speculation list are asked about it a lot. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a favorite of the Tea Party and an early Romney supporter, sounds like he's ruled it out.
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: I don't think there's anybody, you know, in American who would, you know, necessarily think my personality is best suited to being number two.
LIASSON: When other short listers are asked about whether they'd accept the V.P. slot, most of them give some version of the following.
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: I'd cross that bridge when I got to it if it ever came.
GOVERNOR BOB MCDONALD: I'm going to let you experts pontificate about that. I'm not looking...
SENATOR ROB PORTMAN: Look, I think there's a lot of good choices this time around.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Mitt Romney's going to make a great choice for vice president. And I know Mitt Romney is going to make a great president.
LIASSON: That last one is Marco Rubio himself, preceded by Ohio Senator Rob Portman, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.
There's no formula for a V.P. pick. Some of the names floating around now might help Romney win an important state, like Ohio, or reach out to a key voting group like Hispanics. But there is one bottom line.
GARY BAUER: My advice is: Don't blow it.
LIASSON: That's Gary Bauer, social conservative leader and one time Republican presidential candidate. .
Romney's working hard to win over the conservative activists who weren't with him in the primaries. He gave a big speech at the NRA this month. And he's scheduled to speak at Jerry Farwell's Liberty University next month. But there's been surprisingly little pressure on Romney to pick a recognized social conservative as vice president - a Rick Santorum or a Mike Huckabee, for example.
Gary Bauer says that's because there's no one on Romney's short list that conservatives would reject.
BAUER: I don't see anybody being mentioned who is wrong on the values issues, who is wrong on the need for a strong national defense, who is questionable on the size of government. You know, I'll remind you that when McCain ran there were some people being mentioned that were pro-choice. And there was a collective sigh of relief when he went with Sarah Palin. I don't see that now.
LIASSON: Four years ago, John McCain wanted to run with his friend Joe Lieberman, who, as Bauer points out, was pro-choice. The base wouldn't have it. McCain was also running behind Barack Obama at the time.
In the HBO movie "Game Change," the actor playing McCain's top strategist, Steven Schmidt, puts it to McCain this way.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GAME CHANGE")
WOODY HARRELSON: (as Steve Schmidt) We need to create a dynamic moment in this campaign or we're dead.
ED HARRIS: (as John McCain) You think she's that good?
HARRELSON: (as Steve Schmidt) She could be.
LIASSON: But as it turns out, Palin wasn't that good, as everyone, including the real Steve Schmidt, found out.
STEVE SCHMIDT: We were so desperate to come up with a way to win. And you know, that led to the picking of Governor Palin. When you look at the Romney campaign right now, I think that the lessons from 2008 won't be lost on them. They'll run a very, very tight process. And the result will be, I'm sure, someone who is ready and universally recognized as ready to be commander-in-chief from day one.
LIASSON: And that's the most important thing about choosing a running mate, say veterans of the process. It's a mistake to overdo the political calculations. The most important qualification for a vice presidential candidate is a closet free of skeletons and the ability to do the job of president at a moment's notice.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.