With Mitt Romney seemingly on the verge of sewing up the Republican nomination, talk of possible GOP running mates is already underway. But many observers outside of conservative circles are mis-characterizing Romney's VP options. That's because they're assuming that the 2012 election cycle is largely a repeat of the last one.
Romney, they reason, is still too "moderate" for the GOP base. That means, like John McCain in 2008, he'll have no choice but to "balance" his ticket ideologically. And that means choosing a Sarah Palin-type candidate who can shore up his right-wing credentials, while projecting a new face for the party, even if it risks alienating independent voters.
But is that really the case? Howard Kurtz, in a recent column in the Daily Beast seems to think so. And it's true, many in the Tea party would probably welcome the choice of any one of their leading standard-bearers, be it New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Florida senator Marco Rubio, or South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, the latter two, reflecting the GOP's tentative new inroads among women and ethnic voters.
But viewing Romney's choices this way is more of a liberal view of the challenge he faces. In fact, as his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, and recent polling in Florida, make clear, Romney's ability to win over sizable percentages of moderates and conservatives alike demonstrates that he's already unifying the party to a much greater extent than McCain did in 2008, lessening his need to pander or grand-stand with a dazzling but risky, high-profile VP choice.
Who are some VP candidates Romney might decide to look to instead? Actually, they look a lot like Romney himself: white, affluent and male. And they are far from new faces. They include:
John Thune. South Dakota's junior senator became a hero in Republican circles after he knocked off Democratic majority leader Tom Daschle in 2004. He's as conservative on the issues -- from abortion to the deficit -- as the more recent crop of Tea party darlings, but he has more federal and state legislative experience, a more restrained bipartisan style, and stronger backing from the GOP establishment. Karl Rove, the GOP kingmaker, tried to push Thune into running for president in 2012, and Thune very nearly did. As VP, Thune won't help the GOP in the South or in key battleground states, but neither have many past GOP running mates. His chief virtue is that he can rally hard-core conservatives without scaring away suburbanites. And he won't outshine Romney -- or create unnecessary and distracting theatrics - on the stump.
Rudy Giuliani. The former NYC mayor who ran for president in 2008 and flirted with a presidential bid in 2012 remains one of the GOP's most popular politicians. He also has an uncanny ability to woo independents and Democrats, including high percentages of minority voters. There's a common belief among liberals that Giuliani is too simply "pro-choice" to be accepted by the GOP base; polls among Republican voters consistently show otherwise. Giuliani's emerging as a key party spokesperson, and at 70, he's unlikely to succeed to the presidency, which should allay lingering concerns about him among religious voters. Rudy has a demonstrated ability to mobilize Italian-Americans and other working class Catholics in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- states that could swing the election - and his national security expertise -- and the aura of his post/911 role -- could add real gravitas to the ticket.
Newt Gingrich. The former House speaker may have emerged as Romney's chief presidential rival but he's desperately in search of a new role as he enters the twilight of his career. Could Mitt and Newt overcome the wounds they've already inflicted on each other? No one thought Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush could, especially after Bush lampooned Reagan's "voodoo economics." But Reagan saw the wisdom of the alliance, and the two men united politically without ever fully reconciling their differences. Gingrich has the capacity to inspire, and like Giuliani, would appeal to some independents; actually, it's the Republican establishment that's most likely to block him. On the other hand, if properly tethered, the former House speaker could lend Romney the kind of insider experience he'll needs to resist becoming imprisoned by the House Republican leadership, and to cut critical legislative deals with the Democrats, especially if the GOP fails to recapture the Senate.
As the GOP nominee, Romney will have his hands full defending his decidedly mixed private sector record, his hostility to illegal immigrants, and of course, his Mormonism, to say nothing of clearly distinguishing himself from Obama on health care. All the more reason for Republicans to go to their senior bench rather than injecting a young firebrand that might inflame the Democratic base and boost its turnout, further limiting the GOP's already dim chances. And besides, keeping promising new leaders like Christie and Rubio off the ticket will give them another four years to mature, making them far stronger candidates -- not as VP, but a president -- in 2016, should Obama win re-election.
Follow Stewart J. Lawrence on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stew_law