What's Mitt Romney Looking for in a Running Mate?

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman visited the Commonwealth on Monday to help raise money for Mitt Romney. Though it’s fair to presume Portman’s visit wasn’t a mere coincidence, his time in Boston was surprisingly low key. It received virtually no media coverage.

Low key is good, however, if you want to be Romney’s running mate.

At this stage of the campaign, every time a Republican politician of any standing appears publicly with Romney — like Kelly Ayotte on the Fourth of July, for example — the media immediately speculates about who is ‘in’ and ‘out’ for the moment in the Romney veepstakes.

Thing is, Romney doesn’t think — or run the most critical process of his campaign — in the moment. He’s a methodical businessman who sets goals, analyzes data to identify the best means to achieve those goals, and implements his strategy with single-minded focus. This business consultant’s approach to major challenges has served him well through his professional and political careers, and he isn’t going to veer off course now. You can bet Romney will use his selection of a running mate to project an image of practical professionalism. It’s how he was as Governor and how he intends to distinguish himself from the incumbent in the fall.The flags that are thrown up — like Ann Romney implying the vetting of a potential female running mate like Condi Rice — are standard campaign operating procedures designed to keep the selection process in the news cycle over the long summer leading up to the convention.

Romney has laid out his goals clearly for selecting a running mate. At an event in late April in Boston, for instance, Romney suggested that former Vice President George H.W. Bush personified the perfect choice. Bush was prepared to assume the presidency, if necessary, because of his vast experience and temperament. This is the most important feature for Romney.

It also seems to rule out many of the first-term Republican governors who have been floated as possible running mates, like New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. She appeals as a potential Romney running mate to political commentators like Candy Crowley of CNN, who project their own preference for gender and ethnic background — without regard to the candidate’s expressed goals — onto the campaign. Governor Martinez appears to have a bright future, but her public experience comprises a year-and-a-half as Governor of a small state and four terms as a very successful district attorney. A superb background, no doubt, but not yet presidential timber.

Romney also emphasized the importance of his relationship with the presumptive running mate — the two need to have an excellent personal dynamic. Though not surprising, the meaning of this isn’t clear and is tough to figure out from outside of the tightly controlled selection process.

I would argue along these lines, however, that Romney doesn’t want a running mate who would overshadow him on the campaign trail. For example, the fighting spirit of Governor Chris Christie — a great campaigner and early supporter of Romney — is entertaining and inspires many Republicans. But the irrepressible Garden State Boss would likely grate on Romney over time — especially as the media began to focus on Christie’s behavior on the campaign trail rather than on Romney’s message. Another Republican with a huge upside in his own right, Christie doesn’t make sense for 2012.

Romney’s made it clear he believes a running mate won’t win an election for the presidential candidate, but he or she can certainly help lose the election. Sarah Palin, not coincidentally, comes to mind. This type of desperate, poorly researched move by the McCain campaign in
2008 will not be repeated by the deliberate Romney team. So there won’t be a quirky surprise choice or a running mate selected mainly to try to appeal to a particular constituency or to win a swing state.

Romney wants to avoid a running mate who brings their own baggage to the campaign trail. This factor tends to favor a candidate who has already been vetted to some extent, perhaps as a potential VP pick in 2008, and may scare the Romney campaign away from younger possibilities like the popular Marco Rubio (who will be in town on Friday for Romney) or John Thune, who’ve spent less time in the public eye.

While there are other attractive options on the Republican side, Romney’s objectives naturally bring the conversation back to Portman. He fits the bill to a T. The senator from Ohio may not be a sexy choice, but his selection would exude competence and seriousness on the part of the campaign.

Portman has served in both houses of Congress and has held two cabinet posts: OMB Director, useful to a Romney Administration bent on reworking the federal budget; and U.S. Trade Rep, also spot-on as Romney is poised to take a more aggressive stance with China on its unfair trade practices. He has gravitas but is younger than Romney and no doubt would comport himself in a way that the campaign in the fall would be about the top of the ticket (not Portman’s future in politics or on a reality TV show). Portman was also vetted for the position by the McCain camp in 2008. And though some commentators have made inane attempts to use his history of bipartisanship to detract from his candidacy as a running mate, that characteristic actually appeals to many independents and, most importantly, to Romney who, as Governor of Massachusetts, was himself rather bipartisan.

All signs regarding Romney’s choice of running mate point toward the smart, safe route. While Rubio — and others — of course remain a possibility, I’d be pretty surprised if a Romney/Portman ticket isn’t standing on stage in Tampa on the evening of August 30.