by Michael Sean Winters

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The Veepstakes are heating up as we get closer to the expected announcement of whom Mitt Romney will choose as his running mate, presumably, as soon as the Olympics wrap up this weekend. Before considering the options, let’s paint in the landscape.

Usually, a Veep choice does not make a huge difference in the November election, except when the choice tells us something important about the presidential candidate. For example, when Bill Clinton was trying to reclaim and remake his image in 1992, his choice of then-Sen. Al Gore broke the standard model. Instead of picking someone from a different ideological or geographic wing of the party, he chose someone who reinforced the image of Clinton he wanted to project, a young, razor-sharp smart, New Democrat, not beholden to usual interest group politics, more of a technocratic, problem-solver. Gore did not help Clinton carry Tennessee, that was not the point. He did not help him with labor, that was not the point. But, the Gore choice was the exception. The choice of Joe Biden in 2008 was more typical, a tried and true politician who would not call too much attention to himself but would reassure people about Obama.

Of course, the other unusual choice in recent times was John McCain’s choice of Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008. The McCain campaign needed to shake things up, or they were destined to lose. McCain was not entirely trusted by the GOP base. Palin was young, unknown, and gorgeous. Choosing here was a “game change” choice. Alas, the phrase is still haunting McCain’s legacy as the movie of the same name indicates. Palin was woefully unprepared, lacking basic knowledge of U.S. government and foreign affairs. She became what a Veep choice should not be, a subject of suspicion and ridicule.

Last night, a friend asked me to name the top five possibilities for Romney’s Veep. In the event, I think there are only four and here is what each choice will tell us about how Romney is viewing the race.

Rob Portman. The Senator from Ohio would be Romney’s Biden. A long-time player in D.C. politics and policy, Portman would reinforce Romney’s image as a guy who understands economics and could be counted on to support scaling back the size of the federal government. It is doubtful he could swing his home state of Ohio, which is increasingly shaping up as a “Must Win” for Romney as his chances in Pennsylvania and Michigan recede. Still, even if Portman only helped Romney a little bit in Ohio, sometimes a little bit is enough: In 2004, recall, President George W. Bush won re-election by narrowly defeating John Kerry in the Buckeye State by slightly more than 100,000 votes out of almost 6 million cast. Portman’s downside? Too close ties to the still unpopular George W. Bush, whom he served as U.S. Trade Representative and, later, as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Why is he the most likely choice? Because Romney is not the kind of guy to take chances and of the leading candidates, Portman is the most tried and true option.

Tim Pawlenty. The former Governor of Minnesota is a favorite of social conservatives who is comfortable in the cadences and attitudes of the evangelical base of the GOP. Like Romney, he was a popular governor in a normally blue state, although Minnesota is stranger and less predictable political animal than Massachusetts – think Jesse Ventura. Unlike Romney’s other opponents in the GOP field, he dropped out early so there are very few videos of him saying nasty things about Romney. He could not bring Minnesota into the Red column, to be sure, but if dispatched to the Bible Belts in key Midwestern states like Ohio and Michigan, he could make mischief for Obama. Pawlenty is not exciting on the stump and would not upstage Romney, but his working class roots would nicely balance the ticket.

Paul Ryan. Ryan is this year’s Palin, by which I do not mean to suggest he lacks a basic working knowledge of government. Instead, he is the risky, “game change,” choice. If a Portman choice suggests moderation, a Ryan selection suggests doubling down on current GOP economic ideology. Ryan is media savvy, and he increasingly is comfortable using Christian tropes to describe economic ideas rooted in Ayn Rand’s nasty, brutish worldview. Nonetheless, his budget has been dinged by both the USCCB and the “Nuns on the Bus” and his plan to turn Medicare into a voucher system won’t sell well among seniors. Ryan is acknowledged in GOP circles as an expert on budget and policy matters. He is a genuinely nice guy as anyone who has met him can attest: A few years back, when NCR’s editor Joe Feuerherd held a two-day “Washington Briefing” for the extended NCR family, Ryan swung by to say hello and apologized for not being able to stay as he had a plane to catch.

Bobby Jindal. The governor of Louisiana is wildly popular in his home state, but he famously flubbed his first audition on the national stage, delivering a weak response to Obama’s first State of the Union in 2009. Choosing Jindal would send a mixed-signal, the kind GOP candidates need to send. He would reassure the evangelical base of the party with his strong social conservative views, but his ethnic background would demonstrate that today’s GOP is changing with the demographic times, the kind of message needed to win independent swing voters in the suburbs. If Portman and Pawlenty both fit the mold of “boring white guy,” and Ryan is not boring, Jindal’s family roots – his parents came from Punjab – also break the mold, even if he is a little boring.

The religious angle is interesting. Portman was raised Presbyterian but when he began dating his future wife, who worked for Democrat Tom Daschle, he agreed to become a Methodist if she agreed to become a Republican. Pawlenty was raised Catholic but began attending a non-denominational megachurch with his future wife and still attends that church. Ryan is a cradle Catholic. Jindal was raised as a Hindu bit began exploring Christianity in high school and converted to Catholicism while attending Brown University. It is curious to me, at least, that Ryan is the only one of the four to have stuck with the religion of his childhood which may not say much about the state of politics in America, but says a lot about the state of religion.

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