While the presidential horserace will consume much of the political media’s attention over the next year, muted Running Mate Match Game speculation is already underway. One figure that generates a disproportionate amount of discussion on this front is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Despite a series of public demurrals, Rubio-for-VP buzz is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. In Rubio, Republicans have a gifted politician, a very effective communicator, and someone who has earned near-universal admiration among conservatives. He also hails from a critical swing state, and could almost single-handedly put a coveted and growing demographic into play, virtually overnight. Rubio could be especially attractive to a potential Romney general election campaign, as the former Massachusetts Governor may feel pressure to select a running mate who ignites major excitement among the base – a la Sarah Palin in 2008.
But what if the nominee is Texas Governor Rick Perry? CNN’s latest nationwide poll of Republican primary voters gives Perry a nearly 2-to-1 advantage over Romney, solidifying his status as the field’s new frontrunner. Beyond a prevailing sense of urgency to fire the incumbent, Perry’s larger-than-life persona, hard-charging style, and conservative record make it entirely plausible that the GOP base would not need any further energizing heading into the campaign’s home stretch. Therefore, Perry’s political calculus for filling out his ticket would differ significantly from Romney’s.
Enter Tim Pawlenty. The former Minnesota Governor became the first major presidential candidate to drop out of the Republican race after registering a disappointing third-place finish at the Ames Straw Poll in early August. He has since swatted down suggestions that he run for the Senate against Democrat Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) in the upcoming electoral cycle. This decision renders him available for the Veepstakes -- and although he may not be the most exciting choice, Pawlenty just might suit Rick Perry’s needs quite nicely.
Rick Perry is brash, bold, and projects a thoroughly Texan ethos. By comparison, Pawlenty is a gentler, though earnest, Midwestern conservative. He hews so closely to the “Minnesota nice” stereotype that he looked visibly uncomfortable attacking Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann during GOP debates. This contrast in dispositions could prove mutually valuable. Pawlenty could somewhat soften Perry’s hard-edged, take-no-prisoners personality and could slightly tamp down the razor-sharp spurs on his running mate’s cowboy boots. Meanwhile, the Texan’s aggressive campaign posture could focus and sharpen some of Pawlenty’s broadsides against President Obama.
Pawlenty also owns an established record of appealing to independent voters. He was elected governor of deep-blue Minnesota in 2002, cultivated an admirable – though not flawless – record of governance, and was re-elected in 2006, a rare bright spot for Republicans that year. One of the few pertinent questions voters ask themselves to evaluate Vice Presidential candidates is, “Could this person assume the presidency and do a credible job, if, God forbid, it should become necessary?” Pawlenty’s eight years as a chief executive, salted heavily with international travel to augment his foreign policy chops, should decisively answer that question in the affirmative. The man is prepared to be president.
Two more considerations: Pawlenty’s status as a Midwesterner would add some geographic diversity to the ticket, which is sometimes seen as a relevant “balancing” consideration. His Great Lakes, blue-collar background would have regional appeal in areas that were crucial to last year’s Republican landslide – namely, states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Whether he could make his home state even somewhat competitive is an open question.
Finally, despite all the disparaging analysis (some of it deserved) that he’s not a dynamic presence on the campaign trail, Pawlenty does not commit major, unforced errors. As a fixture on McCain’s short list for VP three years ago, Pawlenty has been vetted and re-vetted at a very high level. If Republicans are intent on making the 2012 campaign a referendum on President Obama (as they should), fielding an pre-scrutinized, workmanlike, reliable, and generally unthreatening Vice Presidential nominee would be helpful. If the goal is to spotlight Obama’s failures, it wouldn’t hurt to have a disciplined campaign veteran on the ticket who isn’t a liability, and who wouldn’t draw undue and unwanted attention. In short, one of Pawlenty’s underrated attributes is that he would almost certainly do no harm.
On a personal level, I’m told Perry and Pawlenty get along exceptionally well, and traveled together fairly extensively during their Republican Governors Association days. A well-placed GOP consultant says that despite his professed lack of interest in being considered for the number two spot next year, Pawlenty would “seriously consider” the offer if it’s extended – perhaps especially so if it comes from Perry.
Perry-Pawlenty would offer voters a robust contrast next year: Two proven, competent, budget-balancing, conservative chief executives vs. a pair of failed, liberal former legislators whose self-regard far outstrips their accomplishments. Pawlenty certainly has his shortcomings, but in light of the case laid out above, the future GOP nominee would be wise to at least give him a long, serious look.