Political reporters have long been obsessed with conflict between presidential candidates and their running mates, at least since the days of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
That's probably one reason why McCain's joke in Detroit last week that Mitt Romney was "doing a better job for me than he did for himself" sparked a wave of news stories speculating that McCain was seriously considering, for the vice-presidential slot, his bitter rival turned loyal surrogate.
But while choosing Romney to be his running mate would make Washington journalists happy, it would be nothing short of political suicide for McCain.
Romney exited the Republican race after spending over $110 million (including $45 million of his own money) having failed to consolidate support among conservatives, while earning the reputation as an inauthentic flip-flopper among the public at large. A Gallup poll taken within days of his dropping out of the race in February showed that 46 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Romney, compared with just 34 percent who had a favorable opinion.
PROPONENTS OF ROMNEY becoming vice president argue that he would help with fundraising, energize conservatives who are cool on McCain, and add economic credentials to the ticket. These advantages are exaggerated.
Given that McCain is accepting public financing and his expenditures will be capped at $85 million in the fall, Romney's benefits as a fundraiser would be somewhat mitigated, especially because McCain himself is not too keen on having outside groups influence the election.
Romney's fans on the right like to believe that Romney lost because Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson helped carve up the conservative vote, but it was only because of Romney's weakness among conservatives that either of them had an opening.
Although he presented himself as a full-spectrum conservative, Romney faced his share of detractors within each branch of the conservative movement. There were economic conservatives who opposed his universal health-care plan in Massachusetts, social conservatives who didn't think his conversion on abortion was sincere, and national security conservatives who had doubts about his lack of experience in foreign affairs.
McCain's critics talk about his problems among evangelicals, but Romney actually fared even worse than McCain among this key Republican constituency. An analysis of CNN exit polls in 20 nominating contests in which they competed shows that McCain beat Romney among evangelicals in 12 of those states. Romney's distant fourth place showing in South Carolina was a particularly weak result, because he poured a tremendous amount of money and resources into the state for almost a year.
To the extent that conservatives did rally around Romney toward the tail end of his campaign, it was mainly as a last ditch effort to prevent McCain from becoming the nominee. This is obviously now moot.
ROMNEY'S BOOSTERS OFTEN make the mistake of assuming that just because he has a strong business background, that he will be able to appeal to voters who are concerned about the economy. But the data doesn't support this view.
Romney was able to turn economic jitters to his advantage in the Michigan primary (after pledging $20 billion in subsidies for the auto industry), but he wasn't able to gain much traction on the issue elsewhere. In Florida, for instance, despite targeted messaging emphasizing his business credentials, Romney lost to McCain among voters who considered the economy the most important issue, 40 percent to 32 percent.
A deeper look at his performance in the primaries shows that Romney's appeal was stronger among higher-income voters than it was among the type of working class voters who will determine the election. Also, Romney consistently did substantially worse among those who thought the economy was "not good or poor" than he did among people who thought it was "excellent or good." In an electoral environment in which Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the state of the economy, this would be trouble.
While Romney's strong business background was an asset during the Republican primaries, it could backfire in the general election. Democrats will point to Romney's vast fortune to make their case that Republicans are the party of the rich, and out of touch with the economic concerns of ordinary Americans. In his 1994 U.S. Senate race against Ted Kennedy, Romney was torpedoed by television ads featuring workers who said they lost their jobs when he took over their companies.
All but the most ardent Romney backers would have to admit that it's hard to see Romney -- who signed an assault weapons ban as governor of Massachusetts -- going into those gun-clinging small towns of Ohio and Pennsylvania and connecting with locals any better than Barack Obama.
MASSACHUSETTS WON'T BE MADE competitive by choosing Romney, and McCain doesn't need him to win Utah. The only state Romney has the potential to help in is Michigan, but there is no hard evidence to back up this speculation, certainly nothing strong enough to justify adding all of Romney's baggage to the ticket.
Romney's reputation as a flip-flopper would undermine McCain's "Straight Talk" brand, which is his greatest asset in a year when the public is sour on Republicans. It would also make it more difficult for the McCain campaign to continue to portray Obama as a politician who changes his positions with the wind.
And then, of course, there's the fact that those conflict-loving journalists will replay every disagreement Romney and McCain had during their often heated contest. Video clips of Romney attacking McCain for not understanding economics would provide particularly great fodder for Democratic TV ads.
Romney may be the dream vice-presidential candidate for reporters looking for political intrigue, but not for Republicans hoping to maintain control of the White House.
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