Mitt Romney said this week that the running mate he was looking for could have different "perspectives and skills" than his own. But given the current drift of the bruising presidential campaign, those skills had better include a sound understanding of the federal criminal and tax code and a junkyard-dog propensity to go after the opposition.
Reeling from relentless attacks from the Obama campaign that he lied about the terms and timing of his departure from Bain Capital, that his former private equity firm shipped jobs overseas, and that he’s hiding something by refusing to release more than two years of tax returns, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee may need a bodyguard as much as a vice presidential running mate.
In this increasingly hostile political climate, the former Massachusetts governor may have no choice but to choose a political heavyweight with real legal experience and well-honed debating skills. Two obvious choices would be Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and former two-term Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who turn up on just about everybody’s short list of GOP vice presidential prospects.
Portman, 56, is a smart, poised, unflappable lawyer and former White House budget director who comes from a key battleground state and speaks with authority on spending, tax, deficit and trade issues. In 14 years on Capitol Hill, he has co-authored over a dozen bills that became law, including legislation to reform the Internal Revenue Service. And while the affable Portman has repeatedly shown he can work closely with Democrats – as he did last year as a member of the bipartisan congressional Super Committee – he closely adheres to the GOP no-new-taxes line and readily blames President Obama for a leadership vacuum in Washington.
Portman was also among the earliest to defend Romney after the Obama campaign began airing ads that likened Romney and his former private equity company to a "vampire" and job destroyer, and called the attacks an affront to capitalism.
Pawlenty, 51, is another lawyer and veteran state politician and chief executive with strong credentials. He ran a truncated campaign for the GOP nomination and dropped out of the race after a poor showing in the Iowa straw poll last summer. But since then he’s served as a loyal soldier for the Romney campaign and a tiger of a defender of the former Massachusetts governor.
In an interview this week on MSNBC, Pawlenty said: "I’m committed to Gov. Romney not because I’m looking to be vice president. I’ve said many times I think I can best serve him in other ways, but anybody would be honored to be asked. But the real issue here is … does Barack Obama deserve reelection? We have 23 million Americans unemployed, underemployed, given up looking for work. He made all those big promises. He didn’t fulfill it. He hasn’t done a good job as president. He doesn’t deserve reelection. I think Mitt Romney’s time is now."
For sure, Portman and Pawlenty have their downsides. With Portman, there’s the blandness issue. While he’s fluent in Spanish and comes from a small-business family (his father, Bill, created and ran a highly successful business called the Portman Equipment Company), it’s doubtful most Americans would even recognize the man if they walked by him on the street. Portman is barely known outside of D.C. and his home state.
With Pawlenty, there’s the question of whether he really has the fire in the belly to wage a brass-knuckle national campaign. He failed to make a strong impression in the early GOP debates and refused to directly confront Romney over their differences on health care reform when he was given the chance in one of the nationally televised debates. He dropped out of the presidential campaign almost before it really got started, reportedly fearing that he was beginning to pile up some serious debt.