Mitt Romney's vice president search expected to be careful, methodical

McClatchy NewspapersApril 24, 2012 

— Mitt Romney has begun searching for a vice presidential running mate — in his usual methodical, close-to-the-vest style.

While the logical big names are being tossed about — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, among others — it’s all speculation at this point. No decision is close. But how Romney goes about making this big decision will offer insights into how he’d run his presidency.

Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is a veteran financial executive and was the governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. Throughout his career, he’s displayed two consistent characteristics: He’s very analytical, and he’s very careful.

“He’s not a gambler. I presume he’s going to make a safe choice,” said Timothy Walch, an expert on the vice-presidential selection process and director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in Iowa.

Beth Myers, Romney’s gubernatorial chief of staff and the campaign manager for his unsuccessful 2008 nomination bid, is heading the search.

"I think he chose me because I know what is important to him in his decision making. We have worked together for a long time, and I think he felt comfortable in the way I would present the information to him,” she said in an e-mail.

Myers would offer no clues about the process.

“My job is to put all of the information on the table, so he can make his own decision,” she said. “Gov. Romney will want someone who can step in and lead, should that be required, and someone who is a good fit with him personally."

Myers hasn’t yet devised how she’ll assemble a team, or who or how many people will work with her. She intends to study previous Democratic and Republican searches. Myers plans to make no recommendation, instead acting as an information gatherer for Romney.

The choice of Myers reflects Romney’s meticulous approach to decision-making. It also signals a clearly different approach from the one that 2008 GOP nominee John McCain, a senator from Arizona, used with his last-minute selection of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

While the public is unlikely to know exactly how the process will be conducted, chances are the Romney camp is considering 10 to 12 names at this point, said Joel Goldstein, a Saint Louis University law professor who studies the process. By summer the field will be winnowed, and not long before the Aug. 27 start of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., there’s likely to be some unofficial public disclosure of potential candidates.

That’s the floating of trial balloons. If news media attention leads to the discovery of possible problems with any candidate, any controversy could be dealt with well before delegates arrive — and before any candidate’s name is placed in nomination.

“He will be methodical, and likely have a structured process where he tries to examine the pluses and minuses of a group of candidates,” said Michael Widmer, the president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonpartisan public-policy organization. “He’ll depend on a small group of advisers; his whole career is having a small group around him. That’s his comfort level.”

Romney is characteristically pragmatic rather than ideological. Analysts cite his approach to Massachusetts’ health care legislation: He worked with Democratic lawmakers to craft a bill that required near-universal coverage.

Jeffrey Berry, a professor of American politics at Tufts University, recalled that when Romney became the governor “his Cabinet appointees were problem solvers, not ideologues.” There was a dose of pragmatism in Romney’s picks, in part because he was in a liberal state and had to work with a Democrat-dominated legislature.

Today he faces a different challenge: He has to motivate the conservatives who dominate the Republican Party and have long been wary of him. He has to motivate GOP voters, particularly in the South, who otherwise might wind up staying home.

Romney’s habitual precision, though, may make him slow to cope with the unforeseen.

“He’s actually been pretty clumsy this year,” argued Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social sciences at Boston University. Romney at times was gaffe-prone and a stiff campaigner, couldn’t win a Southern state and took longer than expected to defeat poorly funded, second-tier challengers.

Those weaknesses, Whalen said, suggest that Romney might lean toward a choice such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a proven vote-getter with strong appeal to evangelical voters.

Berry figured Romney is likely to go one of two ways:

He may pick someone with strong appeal to Hispanics, who make the difference in several Southwestern states. Among the top prospects are Rubio or New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. But Rubio and Martinez won statewide elections for the first time only 19 months ago, in a strong Republican year.

Or, more likely, Romney will pick a proven vote-getter from a swing state, such as Ohio’s Portman, Wisconsin’s Ryan or Virginia’s Gov. Bob McDonnell.

If Romney stays true to his logical self, said Dan Gerstein, who was a top adviser to Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman when the senator was Al Gore’s 2000 vice presidential pick, some predictable criteria probably will guide his decision.

“What made the (2000) ticket so effective was the personal rapport and level of trust,” said Gerstein, who’s now a New York-based political consultant. “The candidate should be someone who, even if Romney doesn’t know him well, is someone he should trust implicitly.”

The candidate also should effortlessly clear what Gerstein called the “qualifications bar.” If people question whether the choice has the resume or gravitas to be president — as happened with Palin — the ticket could get hurt.

“If you’re answering questions about your vice presidential nominee’s qualifications, you’re losing,” Gerstein said.

The Romney camp is likely to use a selection template that dates roughly to 1976. It emerged after a confluence of events around the 1972 election. Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern’s first choice, Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, left the ticket after revelations that he’d received electric-shock treatments years earlier for nervous exhaustion. And 10 months after being re-elected, Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew pleaded guilty to a tax-evasion charge and resigned.

By 1976, another development had changed presidential politics: Primaries and caucuses had become the dominant factors in selecting a presidential nominee, not party big shots. Little-known former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who had few ties to the party establishment, won the Democratic nomination, wrapping it up by June. He then had weeks before the convention to weigh his choice carefully. Goldstein notes that Carter’s meticulous approach, which resulted in the selection of then-Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota, was seen as widely successful.

That model would be copied, particularly by Democrats, though not always successfully. In 1984, Mondale made his selection process unusually public. That was criticized heavily, because it looked as if he were trying to satisfy a variety of Democratic constituencies before finally settling on New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on a major ticket.

Most future White House nominees were more discreet. Gore dispatched veteran party stalwart — and diplomat — Warren Christopher in 2000 to head his search. Three names leaked out a few days before the convention, allowing the media to dig into their pasts. By the time Gore announced that Lieberman was his choice a week before the convention, the senator’s record had been well-scrubbed and controversies were minimal.

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