NEW YORK -- In July 1988, CNN's John King was camped outside the home of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis when he got a sign the Democratic presidential nominee had just picked a running mate.
King, then a 24-year-old Associated Press reporter, noticed that top Dukakis adviser Paul Brountas looked more relaxed as he left the house than he had on previous nights King spent waiting out there. So King raced back to the AP's Boston bureau around 10 p.m., worked the phones all night, and confirmed that Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen was the vice presidential pick just in time for the network morning shows.
"It was a career-changing, life-changing break for me," King said Monday in an interview with The Huffington Post.
Twenty-four years later, political reporters are again working sources and reading the tea leaves, hoping to nail down Mitt Romney's vice presidential choice before the campaign blasts out the news through a new smartphone app.
The New York Times, one of several news outlets that followed the presumptive Republican nominee to the grocery store on Monday, reported how "Romney’s every movement and utterance are watched and parsed for any scrap of a detail that might reveal his intentions." To wit: the Times noted Romney purchased "12-packs of Caffeine Free Diet Coke, Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi and bags including Greek yogurt."
For months, journalists and pundits have been caught up in the quadrennial Veepstakes guessing game, rarely letting Romney out of an interview or event without asking the inevitable, yet unanswerable question. After walking out with groceries on Monday, Romney was asked whether Ohio Sen. Rob Portman or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- two contenders believed to be atop the shortlist -- were coming to dinner that night. Romney laughed it off.
News organizations devote extensive resources to covering the VP selection process, from who's being vetted or not to breaking the news of the pick, often just days or even hours before the campaign announces it. While it doesn't matter to the majority of Americans which reporter broke the news or got it minutes before others did, these scoops have currency among the political agenda-setters who Mark Halperin once dubbed the "Gang of 500," the type of insiders who nowadays get birthday shoutouts on Mike Allen's morning Playbook.
And no outlet wants to be left out of the Veepstakes game, leading reporters to chase down any rumor during the pre-convention summer doldrums. When Matt Drudge recently floated the notion of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice being on Romney's shortlist, the political press followed close behind, either discussing how the Republican party would react to such a pick or dismissing the leak as a transparent attempt to distract from Romney's tenure at Bain Capital. On Tuesday afternoon, Drudge floated Gen. David Petraeus as a VP contender, a report picked up minutes later by Politico and dismissed during a White House press briefing.
NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, who wrote in April about what he considers the four types of scoops, told The Huffington Post that "getting a leak on who the VP pick will be and springing it on the world before the candidate does so is an ego scoop, almost in the purest sense of the term."
"I'm sure it's true that it helps with bosses and future employers to gain a reputation as a reporter with sources who gets juicy leaks," Rosen wrote in an email. "That's extremely plausible. But look at what it says: I'm doing this to impress my bosses and future employers, not because it has any real public value."
"Another argument is that we want reporters competing for scoops even if some of them fall into the 'ego' category because we need an aggressive press that is trying to reveal stuff," he continued. "It's not clear to me why reporters cannot make distinctions, and compete for important scoops like the CIA's black sites rather than a VP announcement that is coming anyway, but ... there it is!"
Even King, who's broken more VP picks than anyone over the past quarter century, acknowledges that resources could be used in other ways during an election year. "Do we spend an enormous amount of time and energy on these things that may be spent researching the deficit or fixing Medicare?" King asked. "You could make that argument. You wouldn't get an argument back from me."
NBC's Andrea Mitchell, who broke VP picks in 1988 (Dan Quayle) and 2004 (John Edwards), also noted there are bigger issues to cover, such foreign policy, taxes, or entitlements. But while Mitchell said the amount of uninformed speculation gets "more than a little silly," there's value in covering the selection process.
"It is an interesting insight into how the nominee makes his choice and rolls out the choice," Mitchell said. "It tells you a lot about his decision-making, about his value system, about his sense of the campaign, about what he needs."
Looking back over the past several cycles, such scoops have come as a result of shoe-leather reporting and a bit of luck.
In August 1988, Mitchell eliminated several Republican VP contenders through reporting before finally confirming George H.W. Bush's pick by way of a single, "gold-plated" source as the GOP convention loomed. In the pre-Internet, pre-MSNBC days, anchor Tom Brokaw had to break into daytime programming to report it.
Four years later, King broke the news of Bill Clinton's choice after receiving a numeric clue repeatedly on his pager: 4673. King assumed someone was trying to tell him something but didn't know how to leave their full number. But after leaving an AP dinner to make a round of calls at his nearby hotel, King noticed the number spelled something out on the phone's keypad: G-O-R-E. "That was my cloud of black smoke and then I had to find my pope," said King, who after numerous calls finally confirmed the pick with his sources.
King was also first to report on air that Barack Obama was picking Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden in 2008, just hours before the campaign was scheduled to announce the selection via text message to supporters.
While the campaigns would inevitably roll out these picks, King said providing original, new information is what makes news organizations stand out, especially given all the "noise and clutter out there." It's the "nature of the beast" for reporters to compete for such political scoops, King said.
And yet, journalists -- even those who've landed such scoops -- say that which reporter broke them, and when, is primarily of interest to only a small group of people.
"It does not matter to the public that they hear about it as soon as possible," said Ron Fournier, editor-in-chief of National Journal. "There's nobody outside of 400 of us in Washington who remember Andrea Mitchell or John King got it."
But within that group of political reporters and insiders, these stories become legend. "I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody told the story about King's pager," Fournier said, noting that it "helped establish John King as the best reporter of his generation" and burnished the AP's own reputation.
Fournier, like other veteran political journalists, remembers such VP stories -- from his own 2000 scoop that Al Gore was picking Joe Lieberman to how Mitchell "kicked my ass" on John Kerry's selection of Edwards four years later. But it's not unusual for such scoops to come down to the wire: around the same time Mitchell went on air, now-Huffington Post editorial director Howard Fineman was reporting the news on MSNBC.com. Meanwhile, the New York Post famously and erroneously reported it was Rep. Dick Gephardt the same morning.
Fournier said he could "never forget" breaking the Lieberman story, and Lieberman telling reporters on his lawn, 'I haven't heard from [Gore], but if it's on the AP wire, it must be true.'"
While NBC News first reported that Dick Cheney had switched his voter registration from Texas to Wyoming during the 2000 cycle, the Washington Post's Dan Balz finally confirmed that he was George W. Bush's VP pick, forcing the paper's editors to do something rare at the time: posting the news first online before it arrived in print the next morning.
In an email, Balz noted the "long tradition of reporters trying to be first on the VP story," while also expressing some reservations about the energy news organizations spend on it.
"I've always thought the VP story is one of the most unrewarding of all the stories we cover during a campaign because so much time and effort going [into] tracking something that's more invisible than visible," Balz said. "But it's a very competitive story and in a time when we compete over being minutes ahead of everyone else, that means everybody devotes a lot of resources to it, at least at the moment when it looks like a decision is imminent."
Tim Pawlenty's record as governor of Minnesota is more controversial than his bland persona would suggest. When he took office in 2003, the state's budget deficit was $4.5 billion. When he left office, he claimed a surplus of $399 million, but he got there by pushing education expenses into future years. For fiscal 2013, the state has to close a $1.9 billion deficit. One of Pawlenty's budget moves led to a lawsuit, which he lost. Judge Kathleen Gearin ruled that he had <a href="http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/10/29/lawsuit-pawlenty-cuts/" target="_hplink">exceeded "his constitutional authority</a> in making unilateral spending cuts to a $5.3-million special dietary program." During his tenure as governor, Minnesota's unemployment rate rose from 4.6 percent in January 2003 to 7.1 percent in November 2010. Pawlenty claims not to have raised taxes as governor; he does not mention that "fees" went up nearly $900 million. In 2002, Pawlenty's first gubernatorial campaign was <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/OTUS/vice-president-pawlenty-attacks-democrats/story?id=16859592&page=3" target="_hplink">fined $600,000</a> for violating campaign finance coordination rules. It was the largest fine in state history. Some of Pawlenty's past comments could also cause him problems now. He criticized Mitt Romney's Massachusetts health care plan as "Obamneycare." He once supported a cap-and-trade policy for greenhouse gas emissions -- another Romney no-no. About the latter, Pawlenty has since claimed that he made a <a href="http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/pawlenty-hopes-im-sorry-is-enough/" target="_hplink">"mistake."</a>
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman's biggest drawback is his longtime association with the Bush family, not necessarily a plus either within the GOP or with swing voters. Neither former President Bush will be attending the GOP convention. Portman began his career with Vice President George H.W. Bush as an advance man. He worked in the White House counsel's office after Bush won and then as director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs until 1991. Later, he was an influential campaigner for George W. Bush. According to the <em>Cincinnati Enquirer</em>, as a member of the House, Portman "had closer ties" to the second Bush's administration "than just about any member of Congress." Indeed, he went on to serve the second Bush as the U.S. trade representative and as head of the Office of Management and Budget. His time as head of the OMB from May 2006 to June 2007 is controversial. The <a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/99516970/American-Bridge-Portman-Book" target="_hplink">national debt increased by $500 billion</a> during that time. Portman also repeatedly voted to raise the debt ceiling as a representative and a senator -- an unappealing record to conservative Republicans. Portman worked for the law and lobbying firm Patton Boggs as a foreign lobbyist in 1985. Patton Boggs' clients then included Haiti, Guatemala and the government of the Sultanate of Oman.
If Romney wants to think outside the box, he need look no farther than Louisiana, where Bobby Jindal is governor. An Indian-American, Jindal would be the first person of color on a Republican national ticket. He is a conservative Catholic, although some of his more fervent religious beliefs might need explaining. Jindal wrote an article for the <em>New Oxford Review</em> entitled "<a href="http://www.newoxfordreview.org/article.jsp?did=1294-jindal" target="_hplink">Physical Dimensions of Spiritual Warfare</a>" about an "actual" exorcism he witnessed in college. Concerns have been raised about links between his wife's charitable foundation and the actions of his administration. Many organizations that lobbied the state government also gave to the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana's Children. The <a href="http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2011/03/how-bad-bobby-jindal-charity-scandal/35582/" target="_hplink"><em>Atlantic</em> Wire</a> reports, "After Jindal's administration signed off on Marathon Oil's request to increase its oil refinery's output, the oil giant committed $250,000 to the foundation." Gov. Jindal's decisions on health care and education spending are controversial, even in his conservative Southern state. His administration recently cut $329 million from the Louisiana State University hospital system, an amount that, according to <a href="http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2012-07-24/la-dot-lawmakers-criticize-few-details-in-health-cuts" target="_hplink"><em>Bloomberg Businessweek</em></a>, represents "one-quarter of its entire budget for the fiscal year that began July 1." And the Louisiana Federation of Teachers <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/01/us-education-vouchers-idUSL1E8H10AG20120601" target="_hplink">filed a lawsuit</a> against the Jindal administration over recently passed legislation that will shift millions of dollars out of the public education system.
Rep. Paul Ryan's claim to fame is also his biggest liability: his federal budget plan. As chairman of the House Budget Committee and a sweeping thinker on tax and spending issues, he came up with a plan that is either brave or foolhardy, depending on your point of view. His "Roadmap for America's Future" would slash both taxes and spending. In theory, it would halve the budget deficit by 2020. But there are catches. Ryan's plan would cut deeply into Medicare, education and other social spending. And his claim of budgetary savings requires one to ignore the tax side of the ledger. If lowered taxes are taken into account, Ryan's bottom-line deficit is about the same as the one under President Barack Obama's plan. The <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/06/opinion/06krugman.html?_r=2" target="_hplink"><em>New York Times</em></a> suggested that "the Roadmap wouldn't reduce the deficit. All it would do is cut benefits for the middle class while slashing taxes on the rich." Meanwhile, the <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2012-04-17/catholic-bishops-paul-ryan-budget/54361480/1?csp=34news" target="_hplink">U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops</a> has criticized Ryan's plan, saying that it "fails to meet these moral criteria" of protecting the poor. The bishops also stated that Ryan's assertion that Catholic social teachings inspired his ideas for the budget was misguided. Ryan claims that under his budget proposals "all federal spending aside from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will fall from 12.5 percent of GDP in 2011 to 3.75 percent of GDP in 2050." But Ezra Klein of the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/the-unrealistic-assumptions-behind-paul-ryans-budget-numbers/2011/08/25/gIQAEZrePS_blog.html" target="_hplink"><em>Washington Post</em></a> finds this claim unrealistic because defense spending alone has never fallen below 3 percent of GDP -- and Mitt Romney doesn't want to let it fall below 4 percent.
Handsome and articulate, the Spanish-speaking son of Cuban immigrants, the Florida senator looks like a terrific veep candidate on paper -- until you read that paper. Since 2001, Marco Rubio stands accused of having <a href="http://www.theledger.com/article/20100918/NEWS/9185023?p=all&tc=pgall" target="_hplink">personally profited</a> multiple times from legislative dealings and campaign funds. For example, months after he helped secure an additional $20 million state budget allocation for Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, he was given a consulting contract and paid $8,000 monthly. During his campaign to become speaker of the Florida House of Representatives in 2003, Rubio created the Floridians for Conservative Leadership political committee. But he "did not wait for the state to authorize the committee before accepting campaign donations. The committee listed its address as Rubio's home, a modest place he and his wife bought in West Miami in 2002, but reported spending nearly $85,000 in office and operating costs and $65,000 for administrative costs," according to the <a href="http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/national/marco-rubios-personal-finances-clash-with-call-for-fiscal-discipline/1129566" target="_hplink"> <em>Tampa Bay Times</em></a>. Also in 2003, that committee, supposedly created to support other Republicans, spent "nearly $150,000 on administrative and operating costs and made only $2,000 in candidate contributions," said the <a href="http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/national/marco-rubios-lavish-rise-to-the-top/1079473" target="_hplink"><em>Tampa Bay Times</em> in 2010</a>. "Over 18 months, only $4,000 went to candidates other than Rubio, while similar political committees gave tens of thousands of dollars to candidates. Rubio spent the biggest chunk of the committee's money, $89,000, on political consultants, $14,000 in reimbursements to himself, and more than $51,000 in credit card expenses." Questions were raised in 2010 about whether Rubio and two former state GOP officials personally benefited from spending with their GOP American Express cards without reporting or paying taxes on the additional income. According to the <em>St. Petersburg Times</em>, Rubio charged more than $100,000 from 2006 to 2008 to the state GOP credit card for travel expenses and meals. Moreover, Rubio appears to have embellished his family's history, telling a story of how his parents fled from Fidel Castro. But the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/marco-rubios-compelling-family-story-embellishes-facts-documents-show/2011/10/20/gIQAaVHD1L_singlePage.html" target="_hplink"><em>Washington Post</em> reports</a> otherwise, saying that records show his parents came to the United States more than two and a half years before Castro took power.
Bob McDonnell's appeal is his rock-solid roots in the Bible Belt, but they may be too deep to make him useful in swing states such as Ohio, New Hampshire and Colorado. The governor of Virginia is an outspoken foe of abortion and gay marriage. When McDonnell took office in 2010, he rolled back former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine's non-discrimination employment policy. Under McDonnell's new policy, <a href="http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/02/virginia-gov-bob-mcdonnell-rolls-back-non-discrimination-protections-for-gay-state-workers.php?ref=fpblg " target="_hplink">gay and lesbian state workers</a> were no longer specifically protected against discrimination. McDonnell is a product of Regent University, a fundamentalist, evangelical institution founded by the television evangelist Pat Robertson. In 1989, McDonnell wrote a 93-page thesis titled "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade." In it, the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/29/AR2009082902434.html " target="_hplink"><em>Washington Post</em> reports</a>, McDonnell "described working women and feminists as 'detrimental' to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over 'cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators.' He described as 'illogical' a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples." More recently, McDonnell has had trouble handling other social issues. In February 2012, minutes before a vote in the Virginia House of Delegates, he <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/29/us-abortion-virginia-idUSTRE81S0DR20120229" target="_hplink">hastily rescinded</a> his support for a clause that would have required some women to undergo an intrusive vaginal probe before getting an abortion. Even though he rescinded his support, McDonnell was widely criticized and even ridiculed. He said he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/24/va-governor-bob-mcdonnell_n_1299348.html" target="_hplink">had not realized</a> exactly what the bill entailed when he gave his support. He claimed that, as governor, "You're so busy advocating your agenda, you don't read every legislator's bill." Race has sometimes caused him problems as well. The NAACP -- and even political supporters such as BET co-founder Sheila Johnson -- criticized him in 2010 for failing to mention slavery in his proclamation of Virginia's Confederate History Month. Just one day later, McDonnell admitted that leaving out the struggle against slavery was a "major omission," and he released an amended proclamation.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has a temper problem. His most recent outburst came in July while vacationing with his family in Seaside Heights, N.J. A passerby blurted out a critical statement about Christie's education policies. He <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/06/chris-christie-jersey-shore_n_1654583.html" target="_hplink">shot back</a> at the man, "You're a real big shot. You're a real big shot shooting your mouth off." He then charged the heckler and told him to "keep walking away. Keep walking." Earlier that week, Christie had insulted a reporter, asking if he was "stupid" and calling him an "idiot." Earlier this year, the governor engaged in a heated debate with a former Navy SEAL, which turned to name-calling when the SEAL kept pressing his point. Christie ordered the veteran, who also was a law student, out of the room and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/09/christie-argues-with-veteran_n_1334963.html" target="_hplink">declared</a>, "If you decide what you want to do is put on a show today, let me tell you something, I can go back and forth with you as much as you want. And let me tell you something, after you graduate from law school, you conduct yourself like that in a court room, your rear end's gonna get thrown in jail, idiot." Beyond his loose mouth, Christie has bigger problems. According to the <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/31/nyregion/christie-takes-credit-for-new-jerseys-economy.html" target="_hplink"><em>New York Times</em></a>, "When Mr. Christie took office, the state unemployment rate was 9.7 percent, ranking 35th in the nation. Now the rate is 9.6 percent, ranking 48th." New Jersey is the second wealthiest state, yet it is falling behind in the national economic recovery and coming up short of revenue projections. Christie predicted that the state's revenue would increase 7.3 percent this year. Other analysts have crunched the numbers and are nowhere near as optimistic.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte fell easily into place next to Mitt Romney when he campaigned in her state of New Hampshire, and she's made quite an effort to put a friendly female face on his campaign. But the first-term senator has some chapters in her short career that might require closer reading. As state attorney general, Ayotte was a strong gun-rights advocate, a congenial position in New Hampshire, but not necessarily among swing voters in, say, Colorado. A devout pro-life advocate, she <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/kelly-ayotte-r-nh/gIQA6LfTKP_topic.html" target="_hplink">fought</a> for parental notification of teen abortions and argued the position in numerous court cases. She prosecuted two high-profile murder cases, controversially seeking the death penalty in a state that <a href="http://www.concordmonitor.com/article/219364/justices-to-compare-sentences?CSAuthResp=1343760271%3A93e1dp9r2u9cvhb22hifgh9ds5%3ACSUserId%7CCSGroupId%3Aapproved%3AD2ECB3C45316D12B26C5896865269810&CSUserId=94&CSGroupId=1" target="_hplink">has not executed a criminal</a> in 70 years. In one case, the defendant is appealing the penalty. In the other, a jury sentenced the man to life without parole instead. Her decision to seek the ultimate punishment drew <a href="http://www.bluehampshire.com/diary/11122/nh-prosecutors-on-ayottes-death-penalty-politicization" target="_hplink">criticism</a> from members of both parties. The state's current attorney general, along with a GOP gubernatorial candidate, <a href="http://www.nashuatelegraph.com/news/768152-196/ayotte-id-have-acted-if-i-knew.html?i=1" target="_hplink">has lambasted</a> Ayotte for her failure to investigate charges against the firm Financial Resources Mortgage, which was accused of stealing about $100 million from investors. Lack of experience is another drawback. Ayotte has just two campaigns under her belt. In her 2010 Senate race, she was quickly embraced by conservative superstar Sarah Palin and had an early lead, but barely won the GOP Senate nomination, with <a href="http://www.swingstateproject.com/diary/7264/nhsen-hodes-within-3-of-ayotte-with-a-sarah-palin-assist" target="_hplink">less than 2,000 votes</a>. Her <a href="http://www.nashuatelegraph.com/newsstatenewengland/882952-227/hodes-far-behind-ayotte-in-the-all-important.html" target="_hplink">general election</a> contest against Democrat Paul Hodes was also tight, despite her early lead and considerable fundraising advantage. Hodes' focus on Ayotte's tenure as attorney general was enough to boost his standing in the polls.
Known for his lean good looks, small-town manners and congeniality, South Dakota Sen. John Thune has the conservative credentials and safe, bland personality to accompany Romney on stage. His weakness may be his thoroughly political résumé. He has virtually no experience outside government. And he has few concrete legislative accomplishments to boast, despite those years of service. Political from the get-go, Thune <a href="http://www.thune.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/biography" target="_hplink">started out</a> as an aide to Sen. James Abdnor (R-S.D.) in 1985. When Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) took Abdnor's place, Thune followed his boss to the Small Business Administration under President Ronald Reagan. By 1989, he had returned home to serve as executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party. Thune was next appointed railroad director of South Dakota, where he spent two years before moving on to become executive director of the South Dakota Municipal League. He won his first election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996, serving three terms before running for the Senate. He lost narrowly to Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and then, in 2004, came back to defeat Daschle, the Senate minority leader, in an even <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2004/nov/03/nation/na-senators3" target="_hplink">tougher battle</a>. Together, the candidates spent nearly $40 million to overwhelm South Dakota voters with negative ads. Few of Daschle's criticisms had to do with Thune himself; the race was largely framed as a contest between the establishment party leader and the inexperienced newcomer. In the end, Thune's triumph over Daschle was so thorough that no one, Democrat or Republican, ran against him in 2010. His voting record in office is <a href="http://www.politicsdaily.com/2011/01/29/who-is-john-thune-and-why-is-he-on-the-gop-2012-short-list-for-p/" target="_hplink">unsurprisingly conservative</a> and consistent, although he did vote for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008. In a 2009 profile in the <em>New York Times</em>, columnist David Brooks <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/13/opinion/13brooks.html" target="_hplink">wrote</a> that what is notable about Thune is what is lacking: His conservatism does not include angry rants or radical proposals. So perhaps Thune can rally conservatives without scaring off the less intense.