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Why The Palin Fiasco Argues FOR Kelly Ayotte

I’ve generally avoided the veepstakes—better, it seemed, to focus on matters such as what’ll happen to the nearly 100,000 Ohio voters who went to the polls on the final pre-Election Day weekend in 2008 but won’t be able to do so this year. But as Romney’s big day draws near, I’ll offer one pet theory of mine: that the pundits are wrongly counting out Kelly Ayotte, the new senator from New Hampshire.

Ayotte offers obvious appeal, not least as a way for Romney to try and close his considerable gender gap with women voters. But it is precisely this logic that has generally been used to dismiss her. After all, the last Republican nominee reached for a telegenic, little-known woman as his running mate, and we know how that turned out. My colleague Eliza Gray was among the first to lay out this line of thinking, in a short piece about Susanna Martinez, the new governor of New Mexico, who has been dismissed as veep material for the same reason: 

“I highly doubt any female first-term governor is going to be selected for V.P.,” says one Republican strategist, echoing a view I’ve heard from others. He thought this might be for the best, since Martinez had the potential to be “real and legit for a long period of time.” Still, he mused, “if Palin had not been chosen, would Susana and Nikki [Haley] be at the very tip top of the truly privately vetted list? Yes.”

But couldn’t one look at this question the other way around? Imagine: Romney picks Ayotte. The initial pundit reaction is, OMG, another little-known attractive brunette with young children from up north! What can he possibly be thinking? But within hours, I predict, this would give way to a second, more lasting wave of spin: Hey, what do you know? Kelly Ayotte is not Sarah Palin! Because she most certainly is not. Palin had only a few years earlier been the mayor of a 5,000 person town with decidedly minimal responsibilities. She had all sorts of baggage, including her questionable firing of a public safety commissioner who had resisted her demands to crack down on her ex-brother-in-law. She had an, er, tenuous grasp of world affairs beyond the Alaskan airspace through which Vladimir Putin reared his head.

Ayotte, on the other hand, diligently worked her way up through the ranks as a prosecutor to become the state attorney general. (It so happens that I covered her first major homicide trial in Concord in 1999, a gruesome, high-profile rape and murder of a 6-year-old girl. I remember Ayotte as capable but slightly nervous in her big debut, using her girl-next-door charm—she was only 31 at the time and looked even younger—to build credibility with the jury; her father came to watch her closing statement.) Unlike Palin, she has no stable of hometown enemies and no known baggage, other than her failure to stop a huge Ponzi scheme based in the state during her tenure as attorney general. She is even-keeled where Palin is volatile. And in her first year and a half in the Senate, she has deliberately plunged into foreign affairs, enlisting as an eager member of the McCain-Graham-Lieberman caucus to cast Barack Obama as feckless abroad.

Which leads to perhaps the biggest contrast between the two women: whereas Palin was perpetually on the verge of going rogue, Ayotte has fashioned herself into the ultimate loyal Republican foot-soldier, ever at the ready to do her party elders’ bidding. Most notably, whenever the party needs someone to rebut the Democrats’ “war on women” line, you can count on seeing Ayotte reporting for duty. If anything, her party-line reliability borders on the overdone; it’s certainly at odds with New Hampshire’s proud reputation for ornery independence. (As attorney general, Ayotte was criticized for pressing cases that would aid her rise within the national party, such as seeking the death penalty in the killing of a police officer and arguing a parental-notification abortion law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.)

But dutifulness is a quality that surely appeals to the buttoned-down former CEO, Mitt Romney. More importantly, as part of that second wave of spin, he would reap all sorts of easy credit: he had taken the Palin example into account, and had picked another little-known woman anyway. Because, you see, he knows that it's unfair to lump all women politicians together. He's a modern man! The reality would be rather less uplifting: instead of raising the bar for women politicians, Palin has arguably lowered it. It’s hard not to surpass her.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis