WASHINGTON — Will he go safe or go sexy?
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is poised to pick a running mate, the most important decision of his campaign to date.
Will the cautious Romney try to shake things up by tapping someone such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., or former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, among a group of minorities and women who could add sizzle to a ticket some Republicans fear will be bland?
Or will he stay in his comfort zone and select a steady, but buzz-challenged, running mate such as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio?
Romney’s search has been a cloak-and-dagger operation. He lifted the veil only a tiny bit this week, telling the National Review that he might consider, “in some cases, people who provide perspectives and skills that I may not share.”
In a signal he’s getting close, he’s put a staff in place this week to help the new candidate. Randy Bumps, former political director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, will be the vice presidential candidate’s operations director, and former party spokesman Kevin Sheridan will be his communications director.
Romney, aides say, knows well the first maxim of picking a running mate: Do no harm.
“If there is a game changer, it would be rather remarkable,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.
What the ticket mate can do is make a difference at the margins
Lyndon Johnson is widely credited for delivering Texas to John F. Kennedy in the close 1960 election. Pawlenty, Portman, Rubio and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire all have that swing state potential in 2012.
“If Rob Portman can add two points in Ohio, for instance, that would be substantial,” said John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California
That doesn’t happen often, though.
Several recent picks stirred strong opinions and produced mixed results: Richard Nixon’s choice of Spiro Agnew in 1968, Gerald Ford’s pick of Bob Dole in 1976, Walter Mondale’s 1984 selection of Geraldine Ferraro, George H.W. Bush’s 1988 choice of Dan Quayle, and John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin in 2008.
Nixon and Bush won.
The others lost, but few historians blame their running mates for their defeats – and note that often the excitement or controversy they generated had little to do with the result. Ferraro, for instance, was a hero to millions of women, the first woman on a major party ticket. But women that fall went 58-42 for rival Ronald Reagan, who won in a landslide.
Palin is regarded as the poster child of recent poor picks. Election Day exit polls showed 60 percent of voters thought she was not qualified to be president; that group voted 82 percent to 16 percent for President Obama.
Yet no poll suggests she was the key reason for McCain’s loss, and some McCain campaign officials insist that the former Alaska governor succeeded in exciting a conservative base leery of McCain.
“What he [Romney] shouldn’t repeat with his pick is the way she was handled,” said Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire Republican Party official who accompanied McCain throughout the campaign. “She didn’t have a great initial interview and we didn’t roll her out enough initially to the press.”
Here’s a look at the potential VP candidates:
• Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, 56
Pro | Former legislative affairs director for President George H.W. Bush, U.S. trade representative and budget director for President George W. Bush, congressman, senator. Rarely invites controversy, soft-spoken, won big in his 2010 Senate bid in a state crucial to the election.
Con | Too closely aligned to Bush and the struggling economy. Portman presided over the fiscal 2008 federal budget, which more than doubled the deficit. Style may be too bland.
• Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor, 51
Pro | Compelling bio: His mother died when he was a teenager and his father was laid off from his trucking company job. He’s the first in his family to graduate from college. An evangelical, he was seriously considered for the 2008 VP slot. Strong conservative Republican credentials in a Democratic-dominated state.
Con | Unexciting. The state probably isn’t in play. His presidential campaign fizzled in 2011, and he was a sharp critic of Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan – which would be duly noted by the Obama campaign.
• Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, 42
Pro | A star among conservative Republicans for the budget plan he authored in the House of Representatives and his willingness to take on entitlement spending while advocating tax cuts.
Con | Romney could be open to attacks by the Obama campaign that he doesn’t care about the poor and wants to dismantle popular safety net programs.
• Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, 41
Pro | An Indian-American two-term governor and Rhodes Scholar who could add ethnic and regional diversity. A rising star regarded as a problem-solver in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav in 2008 and the Gulf oil spill in 2010.
Con | Bombed on the national stage when he delivered the Republican response to Obama’s 2009 State of the Union speech. Initially supported Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential run. Wrote in 1994 about attending the dorm-room exorcism of a friend.
• Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, 44
Pro | A down-to-earth first-term senator liked by conservatives. A former state attorney general who developed a reputation as a crime fighter. Could help Romney close a gender gap with Obama.
Con | No experience on a national stage and could have a hard time convincing voters she’s ready to be president. Not a compelling speaker.
Her state, while considered a toss-up, only carries four electoral votes.
• Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, 41
Pro | A conservative favorite who could provide a jolt of youthful enthusiasm and improve Romney’s standing with Hispanics.
Con | A freshman senator with less experience than the other contenders. Appeal outside Cuban-American voters is questionable. He has an uncertain rapport with Romney – Rubio only endorsed him as the Republican primaries began to wind down. News reports that as a former Florida house speaker Rubio charged personal items to a state party credit card could provide a distraction.
• Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, 49
Pro | Has an everyman persona. An eager combatant who’s taken on teachers unions.
Con | The potential to outshine Romney. His bombastic style could wear thin with voters and cause problems for the campaign.
• Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, 57
Pro | George W. Bush’s national security adviser and secretary of state has foreign policy credentials Romney lacks. A black woman who could attract white moderate and independent voters.
Con | Closely tied to Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; a moderate on abortion and affirmative action. She has never engaged in partisan politics.
No way, no how
• Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, 54
Pro | Loved by evangelicals and social conservatives for his fierce stance against abortion and for traditional marriage.
Con | Aggressively campaigned against Romney before bowing out and giving Romney a half-hearted endorsement.
• Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 69
Pro | Considered a big thinker by supporters; a fiery orator who’d deliver plenty of anti-Obama red political meat.
Con | A Gingrich-related “super PAC” attacked Romney during primaries, which provided fodder for Obama’s campaign. Considered too impulsive and unpredictable.
• Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, 40
Pro | Indian-American conservative who could help Romney woo women and add ethnic and geographic diversity to the ticket.
Con | Endorsed Romney and watched him lose South Carolina by double digits to Gingrich. Has a combative relationship with the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. She was recently cleared of allegations that she used her office for personal gain and lobbied for employers.