With Rick Santorum’s unexpected exit from the GOP presidential field this morning, the path is clear for Mitt Romney to march right into Tampa and claim the Republican nomination. The pundits are now left to speculate about whether Santorum and Gingrich will release their delegates ahead of the convention and just whom Romney will pick to adorn the bottom half of the 2012 Republican ticket.
Predicting vice presidential candidates can be a tricky business. Most running mates are selected not for their ability to govern (see Palin, Sarah), but to shield some inherent weakness in a candidate or a grab a couple extra votes in a battlground state. For a candidate with as many vulnerabilities as Mitt Romney has within his own base, the options are legion.
One of the most interesting side stories of this campaign has been the relative strength of the Republican bench (that’s relative to the extremely weak starting lineup). The GOP is teeming with young legislators chomping at the bit to dive into national politics, but which one of them helps Romney the most?
The former Massachusetts governor could pick a religious conservative to sure up southern support or a fiscal conservative to bolster his campaign’s main attack on Obama. He could also pick a completely out-of-the-box candidate a la John McCain in 2008.
So who will the Stormin’ Mormon™ ultimately choose to occupy the space one heartbeat away from the Republican presidential candidate? The following are my five most likely candidates:
The Hold Your Nose Veep: Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum
No matter how you count it, the guy controls at least 200 pledged delegates and the devotion of some of the most important interest groups in the Republican base. Despite the bitter primary, Romney might feel like he needs Santorum on the ticket to bolster his approval with evangelicals and white, working class voters.
The Retake the Women’s Vote Veep: Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison
Senator Hutchison is a widely respected and tenured southern senator who could help the Romney campaign make inroads in the deep south while repairing some the damage done to Romney’s female support by the wingnuts in the Republican party. She’s also a reasonably moderate Republican, if such a thing even exists anymore, and she might be able to help Romney tack back towards the center after a primary campaign that forced him to take extreme, right wing positions on wedge issues like taxes and immigration.
The Double Down on the Deficit Veep: Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan
The young house budget chairman has crawled out of the lunatic fringe of the party and claimed a place of national prominence with his repeated (and failed) budget proposals. Ryan is a darling of the Tea Party and could help give Romney some much-needed credibility with the Santorum wing of the party without actually forcing Romney to associate with Santorum. Ryan also comes with the added benefit of being a youthful figure, one who may have the ability to speak to college-age voters and young adults who have historically flocked to the Democrats.
The Swing State Veep: Ohio Senator Rob Portman
Portman certainly has the conservative bona fides that Romney is looking for. More importantly, Portman is popular in his home state – a state that any Republican candidate needs to hold if he or she hopes to have any shot at winning the White House. If the Romney campaign gets nervous enough about their ability to perform in Ohio (and current polls suggest that nervousness might be warranted) look for Portman’s name at the bottom of the GOP ticket.
The Game Change Veep: Florida Senator Marco Rubio
Rubio could be the Sarah Palin of 2008. Just like Palin, he is a young politician, popular in his home state, with the ability to bring energy and vitality to a stodgy, uptight campaign. Unlike Palin, however, Rubio has already been vetted (somewhat) by the national news media and has demonstrated a working knowledge of basic geography and the ability to count to ten. In many ways, Rubio does everything that the previous four contenders do, only he does it better.
He’s a Tea Party candidate with strong conservative credentials, both fiscal and social. He’s a Cuban-American who could help Romney appeal to an alienated and critical voter bloc. He also just happens to be the popular, prodigal son of a giant swing state. Rubio’s only potential shortcoming is his relative inexperience, but all a vice presidential candidate really needs to do is keep his foot out of his mouth and provide a defensible performance in a single debate against Joe Biden. Unless the Romney vetting team finds some fatal flaw in Rubio’s past, I think he stands to be the most likely GOP nominee.