Sabato's Crystal Ball

Veepwatch 2.0: Boring? All the Better

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, U.Va. Center for Politics June 21st, 2012

In Mitt Romney’s vice presidential search, flashy is out, and boring is in.

Now that it appears that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has a fair chance to defeat President Barack Obama — a development that seems to have genuinely surprised many Republicans, perhaps including some of those big names who declined to run themselves — Romney does not need a big-name, attention-grabbing running mate to help him win this race. He just needs someone who won’t cause him headaches.

That’s why the 2012 GOP presidential ticket could be a double-dip cone of vanilla. Not French vanilla, just plain vanilla.

Hence, we’re holding steady with the top name on our vice presidential watch list, Rob Portman. The Ohio senator and former Bush administration official has a sterling resume that would reassure voters he could take over in the event a President Romney was unable to serve at some point during his term, and his main downside — his Bush connections — are already known and can be handled by Romney’s press team. While any nominee might have skeletons in his or her closet, Portman appears pretty well-vetted at this point.

So is the new second name on our list of potential No. 2s: Tim Pawlenty, the former presidential candidate and governor of Minnesota. While Pawlenty’s presidential campaign floundered last year after much initial praise, he has emerged as another safe choice for Romney. His conservative credentials (like Portman’s) are pretty solid, except for his since-renounced support for government action on climate change — not much of an apostasy considering Romney’s policy contortions over the years. One caution, though: A Romney/Pawlenty ticket could be particularly vulnerable on foreign policy, given that both have backgrounds only in state government.

Moving down the list, we like South Dakota Sen. John Thune for many of the same reasons we highlight with Portman and Pawlenty. Conservatives who may not know him will be captivated when they learn his biography: He defeated then-Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, long thought a leader of the vice presidential race, is much lower on this list than our first list (we rated him second previously, and now he’s barely in our top tier). Beyond the issue about whether Romney wants him on the ticket — there’s a dispute about whether the Romney camp is even vetting him — are a couple of realities: The first is that Rubio is a new figure on the national stage who would invite intense scrutiny; and the second is that Romney should be able to carry Florida, a toss-up state that nonetheless has a slight Republican lean, without Rubio in a close national election.

Another contender whose Veepwatch star seems to be fading is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. We were amused this week by a story noting that Romney was offended by Christie showing up late to a joint fundraising event, a small story that seems to point to a larger fear for Romney, which is that Christie is not a natural No. 2 and would be unreliable and hard to control in the campaign. For all of Christie’s firepower — he’s undeniably a formidable political force — he’s the kind of running mate Romney should consider only if his campaign needed a boost. It does not at this point, and there are better, safer picks. Meanwhile, if Romney loses, we expect Christie to be a top 2016 GOP contender.

This list of contenders is notably shorter than our initial ranking: We’ve pared the list down to 11 names, from an initial 23.

The highest previously-rated contender who we’ve taken off the list is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who apparently will be the next president of Purdue University. (Hey Mitch! You know there are other vacant university presidencies, right?)

Others off the list are:

— Ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (a buzzy name who doesn’t want the job)

— Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (pro-choice, first-term governor)

— New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (also a first-term governor, and probably wouldn’t deliver home state)

— Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker (safe-stater who apparently is not under serious consideration)

— Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey (too conservative and probably wouldn’t help carry the Keystone State)

— Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (too far out of GOP mainstream)

— Washington U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (little-known House member from safe Blue state)

— North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr (zero buzz, and if Romney can’t carry North Carolina he probably can’t win anyway)

— CIA Director David Petraeus, Ex-Oklahoma U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts and Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño (long-shots who haven’t materialized as contenders)

While running mates are historically chosen only days before the convention (or, in the old days of contested conventions, during it), we suspect that Romney might pick a running mate at least a few weeks prior to the convention, perhaps in late July or early August.

If he chose to do that, he would be emulating the man who is playing him in mock debates with Barack Obama: 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, who picked John Edwards as his running mate about three weeks before his convention.

An early selection would get the press vetting out of the way before the convention (unless the selection proved to be a disaster) and give Romney a top surrogate ahead of schedule, whom he could dispatch to swing states and fundraisers.

In any event, we suspect that there’s at least another month of speculation to go — and another month’s worth of polling and tea leaves that might alter Romney’s calculations. It remains possible that Romney will eschew all the names mentioned here and pick someone out of left (right?) field. Just expect that surprising person to be boring, rather than exciting.

Chart 1: Crystal Ball Republican Veepstakes possibilities, ranked in order of likelihood of being selected

First Tier
Candidate Key Advantages Key Disadvantages
Rob Portman
Senator, OH
-Reinforces economic message
-Vanilla ticket
-From key swing state
-Safest of the safe picks
-Bush connection
-Held responsible for budget problems
Tim Pawlenty
Fmr. Governor, MN
-Safe
-Gov. experience
-Vetted
-Vanilla ticket
-Probably can’t carry home state
-Bombed as POTUS candidate
John Thune
Senator, SD
-Über-safe
-Seen as rising star
-From small state
-SD = automatic GOP
Bobby Jindal
Governor, LA
-Sterling gubernatorial resume
-Diversity for GOP ticket
-State/fed. experience
-Not nationally vetted
-Unremarkable SOTU response
-LA not competitive
Paul Ryan
Rep., WI
-Articulate
-Young & energetic
-Fiscal focus
-Swing state
-House member — has never even run statewide
-Has touched 3rd rail of politics too many times
Marco Rubio
Senator, FL
-Hispanic
-From most valuable swing state
-Rising star
-Charismatic
-Vetting issues regarding family
-Romney needs to carry Florida on own to win race
-Too fresh a fresh face?
Second Tier
Chris Christie
Governor, NJ
-Dynamic speaker
-(Might) put NJ in play
-Excite and energize GOP base
-Could overshadow top of the ticket
-Loose cannon
-High probability of controversy
-No regional, ideological, ethnic diversity
Kelly Ayotte
Senator, NH
-Swing state
-Woman
-Compatible with Romney
-Ran strong 2010 race
-No regional diversity
-Unvetted
-Shades of Palin?
Mike Huckabee
Fmr. Governor, AR
-Gov. experience
-Vetted
-Blue collar appeal, unlike Romney
-Too far right on social issues
-From safe GOP state
-Moving on from politics?
Jeb Bush
Fmr. Governor, FL
-Strong gubernatorial resume
-Hispanic connections
-National Bush money & organization
-Wrong last name (Bush dynasty)
-Doesn’t seem to want job
Bob McDonnell
Governor, VA
-Willing and very available
-From important swing state
-Transvaginal ultrasounds
-Ties to Pat Robertson