“April is the cruellest month” was T. S. Eliot’s contention, and soon enough it may prove that rare assertion on which Rick Santorum and Lawrence O’Donnell would agree. This Tuesday, if the public polls hold, Mitt Romney will defeat Santorum in the Republican primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland, and D.C. Three weeks later, Romney is likely to do the same in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, and Rhode Island; and there is a decent and rising chance that he’ll complete a clean sweep by knocking off Santorum in his home state of Pennsylvania. Should all that occur, the GOP nomination contest will effectively be over. Santorum will be crushed, his presidential dream reduced to dust. And so will O’Donnell, who has most forthrightly (and avidly, and loudly) given voice to the collective yearning of the punditocracy to keep this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction race alive as long as possible.
But fear not, professional bloviators and amateur political obsessives. For if we will soon have ourselves a nominee, that nominee will soon need to secure himself a running mate. Yes, that’s right, glory be: The 2012 veepstakes are at hand!
The selection of a presidential nominee’s No. 2 is never unimportant. But for Romney it may be especially significant, given the severity of the damage he has suffered in the past months with key segments of the electorate. According to the latest Quinnipiac battleground polls, President Obama leads the presumptive Republican standard-bearer among women voters by fourteen points in both Florida and Ohio (fueling the incumbent’s seven- and six-point leads, respectively, in those states). And a staggering Fox News survey last month found Obama clobbering Romney 70 to 14 percent among Hispanic voters nationwide. If those margins persist into the fall, Romney will be unable to win—which is why some Republicans are already arguing that he requires a ticket mate who is a certifiable game-changer.
Not that anyone dares use that phrase, so firmly associated has it become with John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin to ride shotgun with him in 2008. The story of how McCain arrived at his pick—and in particular the slipshod, half-assed, wildly irresponsible pseudo-vetting the Alaska governor received—has achieved wide awareness thanks to HBO’s film adaptation of my and Mark Halperin’s book Game Change. And that awareness, in turn, has altered the context in which Romney will be making his selection. “In the world after Sarah Palin and Game Change, the chances of Mitt Romney or anyone else choosing a first-term governor lacking a national brand name and experience are greatly diminished,” reports the New York Times. “[And] for any Republican who makes it onto the short list … [the] vetting this year will be a body-cavity search.”
Romney and his team of course could not be more different from McCain and his. The former candidate is methodical, data-driven, and risk-averse; the latter impetuous, instinctive, an inveterate gambler (politically and in Vegas). The former campaign is a hospital-corners operation; the latter the equivalent of a rebellious teenager’s unmade bed. The smart guys in Boston know that in a post-Palin world, not only will their pick receive unprecedented scrutiny, but so will the process leading up to it. What Boston also knows, however, is that Romney is emerging from the nomination tussle with a ton of bruises—and the choice of his running mate is one their best chances to spiff up his battered public image.
“Here’s his problem,” e-mails John Weaver, strategist for McCain in 2000 and 2008 and Jon Huntsman in 2012. “(1) The base doesn’t trust him or like him. (2) To fix that, he’s done everything possible on position-altering to attract them. (3) #2 hasn’t worked. (4) While attempting #2, he has alienated key general election constituencies—Hispanics, women, working-class whites. (5) So he’s in a box. Does he try to fix #2 with his pick, or pick someone who can help with one of the constituencies in #4, or someone who won’t offend the base but might deliver or help deliver a state? I personally would bet on the base’s intense antipathy (smoldering hate, actually) toward the president and try to get someone who can help in a battleground state or fix a constituency problem.”
Romney’s people seem to agree with this conclusion, which is one reason that Rick Santorum is about as likely to be asked to join the board of Planned Parenthood as to be the bottom half of Romney’s ticket. (Another is the same reason McCain didn’t put Romney on his: intense personal distaste.) Should Team Romney decide to court the base, a likelier option would be Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, whose conservative bona fides are impeccable, wonkish outlook rhymes with Romney’s, and Indian lineage would make his selection a historic first—and thus potentially … well, you know.