Analysis: Romney walks a tightrope in VP selection

Justin Kempley 27 June 2012

One of the highlights of every presidential election is the gossip, rumours and speculation that surround the selection of a candidate’s Vice Presidential nomination.

For journalists this neatly fills the summer void between the long battles of primary season and the general election proper – a fact which goes some way to explaining why this peculiar office, described by one of its holders as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”, has become so important in recent election cycles.

With Obama and Romney neck and neck in the polls, Romney’s decision is both the most difficult and the most important of his campaign so far.

The selection of a running mate is far more about balance than it is selecting a ‘President-in-waiting’. Historically, a candidate’s selection sets out to counter the arguments against his candidacy.

Obama’s nomination of Joe Biden strengthened his foreign policy credentials while tackling the claim his candidacy lacked experience. Finding balance, in terms of politics, region, experience, and now increasingly race and gender is at the heart of what makes a good running mate.

This is more than just appealing to the centre-ground. While McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin in 2008 is frequently cited as a reason for his defeat, her candidacy reinforced his own ‘outsider’ credentials, energising a conservative base that McCain had categorically failed to excite. Winning is often more about motivating your own supporters than winning new ones.

This problem for McCain in 2008 has the potential to torpedo the candidacy of Romney in 2012. While Republicans are united against Obama, there still remain fundamental doubts about Romney. His previously liberal stances on abortion and healthcare as Governor of Massachusetts, as well as his Mormon faith have proved problematic, not least in the context of one of the most heated and divisive presidential primaries in living memory.

To win, Romney must first unify his party, and his running mate represents his best opportunity to rebuild a Republican coalition.

Romney needs a candidate with the conservative appeal of Rick Santorum, the activist base of Ron Paul and the Southern background of Newt Gingrich, who at the same time doesn’t alienate moderate Democrats and independents who might yet be won over to his campaign.

Few candidates seem to fit this description. The current favourite, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio will face criticism for his economic record under George W. Bush while more promising candidates such as Marco Rubio or Chris Christie may have presidential ambitions of their own in future.

It may then be Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, overlooked of late by many commentators, who offers Romney the best chance of winning the White House.

The libertarian, still popular with the Tea Party movement would have a unique capacity to carry many of the independents and first time voters who had backed his father, Congressman Ron Paul in the primaries.

The southern Senator’s strong stance on civil liberties leaves him uniquely placed to appeal to Democrats and moderates, while helping Romney to carry his party base. With Romney failing to inspire either, a move like this though unlikely may be necessary for him to win in November.

Justin Kempley