Let's cut to the chase: Five men (no women or minorities, quite unfortunately) meet all the important criteria to be John McCain's running mate this fall. They are: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, John Kasich, Rob Portman, and Chris Cox. They edge out other superb candidates such as Mike Pence, Mark Sanford, and Paul Ryan. (And, let me add one I forgot to include last week: former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating.)
To review, the best candidate 1) will be obviously ready to become president at a moment's notice; 2) will be a Reaganite conservative; 3) should at least put into play a state, region, or constituency that otherwise would be far less attainable for McCain or for a typical Republican; 4) should be well rounded, preferably with at least interesting non-political item on his resume; 5) should have some executive or serious organizational experience; 6) should be intelligent, widely respected, good on TV, and preferably "cool" in persona to balance McCain's sometimes fearsome intensity; and 7) should clearly be a reformer with a record of occasionally bucking the establishment on behalf of principle.
In order from least plausible to most plausible among the five who fit all the criteria, here's the scouting report:
Mitt Romney: By now, Romney needs no introduction. On paper, he is absolutely top-notch. His resume is a wonder to behold. His competence is readily apparent to any voter. And most Reaganite conservatives seem to accept him, even if some aren't enthusiastic about him, yet he does not have a hard edge that turns off independents. He's a palpably decent man with a wonderful family. On the other hand, he had every advantage this primary season, and just couldn't make it work. He never quite seems to "connect" with a majority of voters. Plus, McCain seems to have developed a personal dislike for him, and McCain is not good at hiding such sentiments. Voters would pick up on that, and it would be awkward.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty: Right now the betting favorite, Pawlenty seems to be an ideal choice. Minnesota is an incredibly important target for Republicans, as it keeps creeping ever closer to voting for a GOP presidential candidate, and as the upper Midwest as a whole (including Iowa and Wisconsin) is probably the largest contiguous swath of 50-50 battleground states in the country. Popular with Evangelicals and by most (but not all) lights a solid fiscal conservative as well, Pawlenty seems able to keep conservatives happy while presenting a friendly persona. On the downside, though, he won both of his races for governor with less than 50 percent of the vote; he has no significant experience outside of politics, and there is something about him on TV that seems a bit too lightweight.
Former House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich: There is no doubt that Kasich has an appealing and approachable personality, and political skills aplenty. He represented Ohio for eight terms in the House -- and of course, Ohio has been a linchpin for Republican victories for years, but now has turned into a seriously uphill battle for the GOP. Any local boy who can help keep that state in the Republican column would be worth his weight in platinum -- plus, Kasich adds working-class Pennsylvania roots as well. A true fiscal conservative, Kasich received many plaudits for his part in helping balance the federal budget for the first time in more than three decades. On the down side, he often seemed too eager to grab the credit when the more difficult legislative grunt work was done by the Appropriations Committee and the Ways & Means Committee rather than by Kasich's Budgeteers. He also lacks significant non-political experience, and he can come across as a bit hyperactive, which might exacerbate rather than modulate McCain's intensity.
Rob Portman: His twelve years as a highly regarded U.S. House Member from Ohio preceded service as President George W. Bush's Trade Representative and then as his Budget Director. Everywhere he goes, he seems to impress people with his intelligence, his earnestness, and his bearing. He immediately gives forth an air of (that overused word) gravitas, and he seems to be liked and respected by people across the entire ideological spectrum. Then again, he might be too perfect, too preppy, too deeply connected to the Bush family that has always been his biggest political booster from the time he served as associate White House counsel under the elder Bush. But is he a true Reaganite? It's not 100 percent clear. Most people seem to think so, and he certainly would come across as a classy addition to anybody's ticket.
Chris Cox: The best choice, bar none. This thoughtful and reform-minded chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission made his name for 16 years as the brainiest and perhaps most principled Reaganite conservative in Congress, as well as one of the best on TV. In a brilliant column two weeks ago at this site, Lisa Fabrizio laid out the full argument in Cox's favor. Other columnists have also written that he would make a good Veep choice, among them Lisa Schiffren of National Review Online, Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics, and the reviewer for Exurbanleague.com, which is the top-ranked conservative blog in McCain's home state of Arizona. Ditto for an article yesterday in the Financial Times and a column yesterday by John Gizzi of Human Events.
Cox is well thought of by just about every conservative columnist around, and respected by the David Broder institutionalists for his brains, diligence, and decency. He could probably help at least a little in Minnesota, where he grew up, and of course he is a favorite of the Californians he represented in Congress. Of great significance, perhaps, McCain himself was asked two Fridays ago at a bloggers' briefing which states he thought he might be able to move from the Democratic to the Republican column, and his first answer, the one he focused most on, was California. And McCain is sure to appreciate Cox's grit in coming back from a horrendous off-road vehicle accident three decades ago that left him partially paralyzed for a while.
There will be more to say about Cox in the months ahead. The good news is, McCain has a number of excellent choices from which to choose. The better news is that with so many already-excellent choices, there is one, Cox, who excels even those, and who would be capable of handling any job McCain could possibly throw at him.
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