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Romney's V.P. Calculus: Why the Case for Pawlenty or Portman Has Deteriorated

The conventional wisdom has long held that Romney was disposed toward a lower-case “c” conservative vice-presidential selection, like Pawlenty or Portman: A candidate with indisputable credentials for the presidency, undoubted loyalty to Romney, and experience on the national stage. In other words, Romney wasn’t going to do anything interesting. While this was probably disappointing for the politicos, it made sense for the campaign's overall strategy. Boston has long held that disaffection with the president was sufficient to make them the favorite and that undecided voters would break their way so long as Romney could clear the basic threshold for a capable commander and chief. Therefore, safety was the preeminent consideration underlying Romney’s selection: Reinforcing Romney’s brand as a safe and capable economic manager was all Boston believed they needed to win.

Whether Boston still believes the assumptions underlying that calculation is impossible to say. But what can be said is that this calculation looks less plausible than it did a month ago. After months of uncontested attacks, Romney’s favorability numbers among undecided voters are astonishingly bad, and there’s building but incomplete evidence that Obama is gaining in the polls.

While Romney still retains a credible route to the presidency, the question is how to get there, and more specifically how to rebuild his brand as a credible, competent, perhaps-not-lovable-but-at-least-likable, safe economic manager who can be trusted to guide the country out of recession without gutting the middle class or moving the social security trust fund to the Caymans (or whatever caricature the Obama campaign is pushing by Election Day). And the problem is that neither the campaign nor the candidate seems to possess the message or political acumen necessary to define Romney and break through negative attacks.

Now, perhaps the Romney campaign already resolved on the pick a few weeks ago, or maybe Romney would be reluctant or slow to change his calculus at this late stage. But it’s clear that the old view that Romney can simply mosey his way down the road to the White House is even less credible than it once was. Romney could use something that gets undecided voters to reconsider him, and there’s nothing in Portman or Pawlenty that will cause undecided voters with reservations about both Obama and Romney to perk up and take a serious second look at Romney’s candidacy and draw a different conclusion. One month ago, maybe Boston would have been quite comfortable with that fact. Today, it might be difficult to pass up any opportunity to get voters to take a second look with new light. 

It would be ill-advised for Romney to select someone wildly unconventional  simply to shake things up. But if the Romney camp is comfortable with a candidate who is more likely to make a splash or assist in the effort to rebrand their candidate in the run-up to the RNC, then that person's case has improved considerably. Bobby Jindal comes to mind as someone who is “different” enough to get voters to take a second look, but who is also capable and well-prepared to take to the national stage. Maybe Kelly Ayotte? Others can fill in the blank, this is just an analytical framework. Paul Ryan would certainly be different, but selecting Ryan would be the ultimate deviation from the Romney campaign’s espoused belief in a “referendum” on Obama. Paul is virtually ensured to turn the race into a choice between two visions for the country, and it’s far from clear that’s a choice that would serve the Romney campaign well. 

The best argument for Pawlenty or Portman is that they’re quite consistent with the closest thing that Romney has to a theme: capable and not Obama. The question is whether the Romney campaign thinks that mediocre politicans equipped with a mediocre theme can overcome Obama’s negative advertisements. Over the last month or two, the case that Romney can triumph over the negative advertisements has deteriorated, and so has the case for Pawlenty and Portman. Whether Romney or his campaign agrees remains to be seen.