Romney's Veep Calculations

It's GOP primary day once again, the first major day of competition on the calendar since Mitt Romney won the Illinois primary two weeks ago. If polls are to be believed, Romney is on track toward a clean sweep tonight in D.C., Maryland, and Wisconsin, with the last state as the only contest whose results are not a sure bet (the latest polls have Romney up 7 percent). No matter what happens, the primary campaign is coming down to its final days. A second mini-Super Tuesday on April 24—with a lineup heavily tilted to the Northeast—will strongly favor Romney and serve as the likely death knell for Rick Santorum's campaign.

One of the easiest ways to note that the real primary season is a thing of the past has been the start of the veepstakes as journalists begin to question who might slide into the second spot behind Romney. New York's John Heilemann knows a thing or two about how presidential campaigns select running mates after he reported on the process by which Sarah Palin was selected, for his book Game Change. Looking ahead to Romney's pick, Heilemann runs through the most frequently bandied-about young GOP hotshots, dismissing most out of hand as too untested for the cold-consultant approach Romney favors. Heilemann lands on one surprising possibility:

Which brings us to the other odds-on favorite: Ohio senator Rob Portman. A former congressman, U.S. trade representative, and head of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush, Portman has as firm a grasp of fiscal issues as anyone in Washington. He is solid and stolid, bland and boring, and as egregiously Caucasian as a potful of Uncle Ben’s. But he also won election to the senate in 2010—with 57 percent of the vote and carrying 82 of Ohio’s 88 counties—in what may be the most important battleground state on the map. His snoozy dependability and managerial affect would reinforce Romney’s argument that he and not Obama is capable of fixing what ails the capital and the economy. And, by comparison, Portman’s dishwatery demeanor might actually make Romney look like a bit of a spitfire. (No kidding—Portman really is that dull.)

Most research from political scientists dismisses the impact of a vice-presidential selection. Contra popular view, political scientists have found that a running mate holds little sway in voters' decisions. But that doesn't mean vice-presidential choices are irrelevant. The vice president is important not only because of his or her constitutional duty to step in should anything happen to the president. The selection also provides a first glimpse into how the candidate will make decisions and the types of people who will be hired to stock the cabinet. Is Romney just looking for someone who will improve his public image and fend off criticism—either from the base or the general electorate—or he is he looking for a partner in governance?

Vice presidents have historically been a minor part of White House administrations, dismissed from any policy input once they enter office. That’s begun to change with the past two administrations, though. Even if you dismiss the conspiracy theories that Dick Cheney was secretly the one pulling the strings, he was undoubtedly a major figure in shaping the direction of the Bush era. When Obama selected Joe Biden in 2008, it was seen as an attempt to shore up the white working class, but in many ways, Biden has come to serve as one of Obama’s most important advisers, pushing the president to reduce our commitments oversees and supervising the implementation of the stimulus.

Rob Portman is remarkably non-magnetic. Even as a political junkie, I’m not sure I’d recognize Portman if I passed him on the streets in D.C. He would, however, be a strong choice should Romney seek a running mate who would help him once in office. He served in the House for over a decade, made two stints in George W. Bush’s cabinet, and is back in Washington making connections in the Senate. He’d provide Romney a perspective on the federal government that the former governor of Massachusetts lacks. A Portman pick would be a sign that Romney is looking ahead to governing rather than just winning. If instead Romney chooses a partner like Florida’s Marco Rubio or South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, he’ll clearly be reverting back to the older model: a vice president expected to help win the election and then languish away until the next campaign rolls around.

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