It was just six short months ago that Mitt Romney was the object of ridicule within John McCain's orbit. In the Republican primary, McCain argued that the former Governor of Massachusetts was conning people into believing he was a conservative, was "against Ronald Reagan before he was for him," had a foreign policy that was "just a product of inexperience" and wanted to pursue a strategy in Iraq that "would have led to a victory by al Qaeda."
Now, with the general election in full-swing, Romney is being hailed as a rising star in McCainLand - a foe turned friend whose surrogacy has elevated him into the Arizona Republican's V.P. shortlist. According to a recent National Journal Poll, the majority of "insiders" (25 percent) believe the former governor will end up getting the nod.
But how serious an evolution of the McCain-Romney relationship is the political world witnessing? Several insiders for the two GOP politicos offered disparate takes; with one suggesting that a partnership was a political necessity and another insisting that it was an electoral (if not psychological) nightmare. They and a third all agreed on one point: members of the McCain camp generally distrust if not dislike their former rival. How much these contentions matter is another story.
Elections past are filled with primary victors choosing vanquished opponents to be their running mates. And, in this regard, the acrimony that developed between Romney and McCain in the primary wouldn't be an impediment to them coming together. But an individual close to the Arizona Republican's campaign was adamant that Romney remains persona non grata within the Senator's inner circle.
"Everyone I talked to hated him. I have not met a single person associated with the campaign who doesn't." said the source. "But [recently promoted campaign strategist Steve] Schmidt might be different. I don't know about [high ranking aide Mike] DuHaime."
Beyond personal tiffs, the source viewed the move of appointing Romney to the V.P. slot as politically inept. "An economic downturn and a housing crisis is not the time to put a guy with half a billion dollars and seven houses on the ticket," he said. "It would cost us five points in Ohio and Pennsylvania."
In theory, this take goes against prevailing wisdom within GOP circles. According to conversations with several observers it is precisely Romney's standing as a successful businessman (in addition to his outside-Washington status and youth) that makes him an appealing contrast to McCain. As for the acrimony between the two, a former high-ranking Romney adviser argues it is overblown bluster for a drama-obsessed fourth estate.
"People like to talk about how acrimonious it was," said the source. "I like to say we had a sitting Vice President once shoot and kill a Secretary of Treasury. That was tough politics. In the scheme of things this was not a particularly tough cycle, on either side in my opinion... Yes, Rick [Davis, McCain's campaign manager] was never a fan of Mitt. I know that for a fact. But who cares?
The former Romney confidant added that it is precisely because Romney has proved such an at-ease surrogate for McCain that the divides between the two men could be breached. Comparing Romney's primary performance to a baseball player in a batter slump - "every swing was painful and forced" - he now described the former governor as on a hot-streak: relaxed in attacking Obama for threads of elitism, tax-centric economic policies, and visiting Iraq only once (though Romney, too, hasn't been there since the surge). "There's no pressure now," said the adviser, "and he's in a groove."
So what are Romney's chances of ending up as V.P.? Craig Shirley, a longtime GOP consultant, Reagan biographer and former consultant to McCain, put the odds at somewhere between 20 and 25 percent. Noting that the Senator's primary concern, at this point in time, is a unified caucus, he argued that emotionally-charged political quibbles of the past were a minor roadblock to overcome.
"McCain has yet to fully consolidate the GOP, meaning he should pick a conservative who can help him unite the party," said Shirley. "Romney may be the answer although many on the right see him as a conservative come-lately. They question his policies when he was a governor, including the health care mandates to private citizens instituted while he was governor. He might be able to overcome these objections though... He's done a good job defending McCain over the past several months, no doubt about it. He also knows the history of the GOP. The guy who comes in second this time is the nominee next time."