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Let The Veepstakes Begin

MEREDITH, N.H. -- There are two days still left to go before the polls close in New Hampshire, but Mitt Romney is on a victory lap. At his rally today in Rochester, he brought on stage not only his wife and rock-jawed sons but also their lovely wives and picture-perfect kids, as if it was already the election night party. And he has embarked on what certainly looks like the auditioning of possible running mates.

This evening, he appeared with Chris Christie. I missed that one, but in Rochester earlier today I saw him introduced by Tim Pawlenty, the man whose resolve to challenge Romney on "Obamneycare" crumbled in the face of the Romney force field, and who never recovered from that moment. The placement of the Romney companions had surely been thought out -- Christie's appearance was in the upscale town of Exeter, not so different from the tony Jersey suburbs where Christie is king, whereas Rochester, where Pawlenty appeared, is more blue-collar, befitting the son of a truck driver and former "Sam's Club Republican." And indeed, watching Pawlenty introduce Romney, it was not hard to see why he might be on the Romney veep list. For starters, he does have a basic middle-class aura that Romney sorely lacks. Leave aside that his short-lived campaign's tax plan catered more blatantly to Wall Street than anyone else's; he wears his faded jeans more plausibly than Romney and moves with the creakiness of a man who's done plenty hard labor in his years (which he hasn't, but still...) If Romney is worried about appealing to Rust Belt voters in Ohio and Wisconsin -- and a quarter-billionaire private-equity titan might worry about that -- then Pawlenty may help.(Whereas Christie would be a better fit if the goal was winning suburban independent types in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia.)

But there's another possible appeal: as a foil. Because Pawlenty, from what I saw today, is even more lackluster as a speaker than Romney. Far from upstaging him, as a Christie type might, Pawlenty makes Romney seem positively dynamic by comparison. Like Romney, his rhetoric suffers from overreach and trying too hard. Unlike Romney, Pawlenty does not even have the salesman's Eddie Haskellish smoothness to make the pitch. "Are you ready to be done with Barack Obama's declinist [inaudible]?" he croaked at the crowd in his Elmer Fuddish voice. "Are you ready to elect a president of the United States who doesn't strangle the ecomomy by its economic throat? Have you had enough of President Obama appointing judges who don't interpret the law as written but make it up on the back of a napkin?" 

Granted, the "foil" rationale comes with a flip side -- that Romney/Pawlenty would be about as white-bread as a ticket could get. But Romney supporters in the audience were clearly thinking about it. Jeb Bradley, a former congressman who is now in the state Senate, told me that Pawlenty would bring a valuable "humble" element to a Romney ticket. That said, he added, Romney had also been looking good next to Christie and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. And then there's also Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. "These are all people that would be terrific," Bradley said.

After the event, I ducked into a nearby burrito place that was quickly overrun by a group of 20 Romney supporters -- volunteers who'd come all the way from California to campaign for him. One was a state senator; another a county supervisor who was serving as "agriculture commissioner" for Romney's California organization. Yes, Romney has that big a national organization. And no, those volunteers will never have to do any work for him in their home state. Because this nomination's going to be in the bag long before California Republicans vote in June. The county supervisor realized this. "He's closing the deal now" in New Hampshire and South Carolina, he said. "It's going to be one-two-three."