It's finally time, after multiple columns on the subject, to count down to the very best choice for Mitt Romney to make as his running mate. Before doing so, let's just note that if this highly interesting piece from Sabato's Crystal Ball continues to be accurate -- and if focus groups show that a form of identity politics really would make a difference in attracting the key swing voters identified therein (meaning politically independent white women aged 30-49) -- then it might really make sense for Romney to choose either New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte (breaking my two-year rule; but she really does seem to have steel in her spine) or Washington State's Cathy McMorris Rodgers. But I'm not a big fan of identity politics of any kind.
Also, if other polls confirm the recent one showing a dead heat in Michigan, then Romney darn well ought to take a closer look at the pros and cons of selecting either Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp or former Gov. John Engler. Taking Michigan from the Democrats would give Romney a much greater number of paths to electoral victory.
But let's set those possibilities aside. Without further ado, here are Hillyer's Superior Six choices for vice president, with the best two choices last, in a class of their own:
6. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, FL -- On the down side, it is sheer folly to think that Americans of Mexican or Puerto Rican or Guatemalan descent throughout the country will be particularly attracted to the Miami-Cuban American Rubio. It is not clear that Rubio even helps much in his home state; polls are mixed, with one poll showing he actually would hurt the ticket. Also, the reality is that Romney should win Florida anyway; if he can't, then his campaign is in deep trouble. A much stronger Obama in 2008 won Florida by about 236,000 votes; but, as per Karl Rove, just since Jan. 2011, GOP registration there has risen by nearly 45,000 while Democratic registration has dropped by 79,000. So Romney should do well in the Sunshine State without Rubio.
Also, of course, Rubio still is awfully green: Less than two years in the Senate, even if bolstered by a stint as Speaker of the House in Florida, hasn't provided him time for any real legislative accomplishments.
All that said, Rubio is a tremendous political talent. He appears to be a true conservative, and he really seems to understand, embody, and articulate the essential nature of the American creed of freedom. He would provide a jolt of excitement to the ticket, energize volunteers, and maybe inspire younger voters not just to abandon Barack Obama but to affirmatively turn out for Republicans. Those strengths of Rubio are nothing to sneeze at.
5. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, WI -- Even before Paul Ryan morphed from impressive young congressman to conservative superstar, I was touting him back in 2008 among the four best choices for vice president. He would remain a superb choice. He can explain Republican budget and entitlement positions better than almost anybody out there, in terms almost anybody can understand; he knows how to attract blue-collar votes; and he might help Romney finally snatch Wisconsin for Republicans at the presidential level.
On the other hand, he does present the risk of turning the election into a referendum on "scary" Republican proposals rather than being a referendum on Obama's four years of failure and radicalism. Plus, if my reading of voter psychology is correct, choosing Ryan might actually hurt the GOP ticket at the margins in Wisconsin. Why? Well, ordinarily this wouldn't be the case; in fact, just the opposite would be true, as I sense that Ryan is quite popular in his home state. But Wisconsin's politics are unique this year. I think the recent win for Scott Walker in the recall battle already has conservatives/Republicans energized, enthused, and mobilized for the fall. The superb ground game built by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus probably will work just as well whether or not Ryan is on the ticket. On the other hand, I think the Wisconsin Left is tremendously dispirited, and probably not ready for another massive effort. But if Ryan were on the ticket, the Wisconsin Left would see it as a direct challenge, almost rubbing their faces in their loss, and thus might rouse itself again, far more so than if Romney went elsewhere for a Veep. It might be better to let sleeping yellow dogs lie.
4. U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, PA -- On the downside, several recent reports indicate that the Romney team doesn't think Pennsylvania is a very realistic target (although a new poll out Tuesday puts Romney within six points there). Plus, Toomey's earlier leadership of the Club for Growth, supporting GOP challengers against moderate incumbents, might still engender raw feelings from establishmentarian activists and might make it easier for the media to hang its favorite label of "extremist" on him.
Those are not very significant drawbacks. On the highly significant upside, Toomey would energize conservative activists of almost all sub-groups; he has proved to be a very effective campaigner; and he has proposed a solidly conservative balanced budget without touching entitlements in any way that could be used as a scare tactic against the ticket.
If Romney chose Toomey, he could use him in the campaign in a unique way. Some 90 percent of Toomey's mission could be to just campaign for two straight months as if it were another statewide Pennsylvania race. Without even spending a lot of resources for media buys, Toomey could crisscross his home state, campaigning in smallish hamlets that usually are not visited by presidential campaigns, driving up conservative turnout throughout the Keystone Commonwealth. (He might also do well to make brief cross-border excursions into eastern Ohio, and into West Virginia and northwestern Virginia and perhaps into New Jersey.)
Who knows: It might just work in stealing Pennsylvania for the GOP -- and even if it didn't, it would drive the Obama team to distraction; force the Obamites to expend far greater resources in Pennsylvania than otherwise necessary (thus possibly leaving other states more exposed without requiring anywhere near the same level of resource commitment from the Romney camp); and provide encouragement to Republican activists nationwide just by appearing to put Pennsylvania into play. Not bad; not bad at all.
NOTE: In recent weeks, I've written individual columns profiling the final three choices. See the links on their last names, below.
3. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, PA -- It is astonishing that Santorum isn't somewhere near the top of every Veep list. As has been the case during his whole career, conventional wisdom badly underestimates his appeal. Never mind the millions of votes he won this winter. Never mind the numerous state primaries and caucuses he won despite being woefully underfunded and discounted. It's crazy. Every single polling cross-tab I've seen has shown that while Mitt Romney does enjoy majority or plurality support among Evangelicals and blue-collar workers, the support is shallow and tepid -- and those are the very constituencies to whom Santorum appeals the most. Romney desperately needs their energy. He also should understand that a lot of Santorum voters will feel ignored, marginalized, indeed insulted, if their candidate isn't at least publicly listed among the final three choices even after effectively having been Romney's runner-up.
It also should help that Santorum has been publicly vetted. There is nothing negative about Santorum that hasn't already come out. People already have factored in his supposed deficiencies. There aren't any jokers remaining in the deck. And even the people who don't like him give him credit for being sincere and honorable -- factors that severely mitigate the chance of many people voting against a ticket based merely on distaste for the bottom half of the ticket.
Acknowledging all that, it is also true that Santorum might marginally weaken the ticket exactly with the constituency identified by the Sabato Crystal Ball analysis (mentioned above, in the opening paragraph) as the "swing group" that is otherwise most accessible and productive for the Romney campaign (i.e, independent white women aged 30-49). He also seems to offer marginally less upside in Pennsylvania than Toomey does, because he seems to evince more fervid feelings among opponents.
Speaking of Pennsylvania, by the way, there may be a psychological factor that would help for either a Santorum or a Toomey pick. For whatever reason, and despite its seminal importance in American history, Pennsylvania is the only large state that has really been short-changed at the national executive level, with the forgettable James Buchanan as the only president hailing from there, and only Biden (identified with Delaware) and George Dallas (under James K. Polk) as Veeps from there. This snub probably sticks in Pennsylvanians' craws. Home state pride is a wild card that might not even show up in polls, but might factor into voting-booth decisions.
Nonetheless, choosing Santorum would represent more a play for certain national constituencies than a play for Pennsylvania. If, by August, Romney seems to be treading water and trailing in the polls, Santorum might be a game changer, even if a slightly risky one.
OKAY, DRUM ROLL PLEASE. Even though about 12 people would make fine choices for Romney, two of them do stand above the rest.
1b. Sen. Jon Kyl, AZ -- It is an odd historical oddity that, beginning in 1952, every Republican presidential ticket has included either a Nixon, a Dole, a Bush, or a senator from Arizona. With due apologies to the great Barry Goldwater, Kyl might be the best of that entire conglomeration. One of the most universally respected senators across the political spectrum, Kyl is knowledgeable on a host of issues, plain-spokenly articulate every time he opens his mouth, solidly conservative, very accomplished legislatively -- and eminently safe, with no obvious chinks in his armor for the media or the Obamites to attack. Already, a small buzz is starting to grow around Kyl, with others suggesting him here and here and here and here.
If Romney continues to look like he's in a good political position heading into the GOP convention, so that he doesn't need to swing for the fences but instead wants to give voters a sense of his decision-making solidity, then Kyl could really be the man. Most experts, after all, think that voters adjudge Veep choices more as a cue into the executive decision-making of the presidential candidate than as an individually decisive factor in casting their ballots. Kyl is so eminently visualizable stepping into the Oval Office (if something happens to Romney) that voters would immediately "get it," and probably approve.
Kyl also adds particular heft where Romney has no real record, namely foreign and defense policy. From Kyl's long service on the Judiciary Committee, he also is well equipped to carry the fight to Obama on the subject of Eric Holder's corrupt Justice Department, and also to parry attacks on the Supreme Court that Obama is expected to make if the court throws out all or part of Obamacare. With Romney having shown a bit of ineptness in describing legal issues and explaining conservative jurisprudence, Kyl's abilities here could be tremendously important.
Finally, while few people think Republicans are seriously at risk of losing Arizona, Kyl does perhaps, at the very margins, offer an overlooked geographical advantage. In a very close election, many observers are starting to think the entire outcome could depend on a razor-thin difference, one way or another, not in Ohio but in Iowa. Well, Kyl grew up in Iowa, and his father actually was a U.S. congressman from there. (Iowans as young as 58 might still remember his father fondly.) This might not make a huge difference, but even a couple of thousand votes might mean all the marbles. Combined with Kyl's overall knowledge of issues unique to the southwest (again, perhaps a marginal help in Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico as well as Arizona), the Iowa connection might be a tiny-but-important bonus for a Romney campaign.
1a. Gov. Bobby Jindal, LA -- No single person better combines the ability to excite the Republican "base" with the breadth of resumé experience, the reformist record, and the proven ability of crisis management than does Jindal. At age 25 he rescued Louisiana's state health-care system from Medicaid-induced collapse; he helped forge a national Medicare solution (along Paul Ryan's later lines) that won over Democratic moderates like John Breaux and Bob Kerrey but fell short when Bill Clinton pulled the plug during the Lewinsky mess; he ran Louisiana's second-largest system of colleges; he served as the number two guy at the federal Department of Health and Human Services; he served three years in Congress and emerged from Hurricane Katrina as the only Louisiana politician with his stature enhanced by his highly effective responses; and he has been the most successful conservative reformer (and the only re-elected one) ever to serve as Louisiana's governor. As governor he pushed through some needed ethics reformed, pared state government, kept taxes low, handled the BP oil spill superbly, and pushed through (partly in his first term, partly in his second) a series of education reforms (expanding choice and improving accountability) that, combined, probably outstrip even those of Florida's Jeb Bush and Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson as the boldest and best school improvements in modern American history.
Some will gripe that Jindal adds no geographical advantage to the ticket -- and they are right. But that consideration pales in comparison with what he will add in one particular area. It is almost certain that, regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on Obamacare, the question of "what would Republicans do to replace it" will dominate campaign coverage throughout the summer and perhaps all the way until Election Day. Romney himself, as the author of Romneycare and a once-avid advocate of an individual insurance mandate, is poorly equipped to handle this question. No high-ranking elected official in the country, however, can match Jindal for his expert knowledge on health-care policy, nor can anybody else match Jindal's ability to explain positive, conservative alternatives to the Left's state-controlled systems. In short, he takes a major Romney weakness and turns it into a strength, on an issue that really could sway the whole election.
Jindal also will be hard to attack. He has been somewhat inoculated by none other than James Carville, who said (for the dust-jacket of Jindal's excellent book) that "I don't agree with the guy on everything, but Governor Jindal has provided competent, honest, and personable leadership throughout some of Louisiana's toughest times."
Alas, nobody is perfect, and while national conservatives love Jindal, numerous Louisiana conservatives (some of them quite perspicacious, not to mention friends of mine) will bend anybody's ear about certain alleged shortcomings and apostasies. Individually, their complaints may have merit. Collectively, they still don't add up to an effective indictment of somebody who has had more success with conservative governance than anybody in Louisiana history.
Conservatives also will complain that Jindal is sometimes too inaccessible, and that his own geniality masks a serious political ruthlessness in his administration. In truth, there is a certain air of LBJ-like political muscle -- definitely minus the corruption, thank goodness -- that comes from the administration. On the other hand, in the hardball realm of national politics in which the Left and its media allies have no compunction about smearing conservatives relentlessly, conservatives could probably use a measure of ruthless effectiveness.
If Bobby Jindal and his team are deceptively tough, it also means they are tough to beat. Conservatives and Republicans of all stripes should celebrate such a quality -- and Mitt Romney darn well ought to make use of it.