Ask any adult within listening range of a swimming pool what two words they dread most and you’re likely to get the same response: “Marco Polo”, the children’s aquatic version of hide-and-seek that’s as entertaining to kiddies as it is mind-numbing to grown-ups.
It’s not unlike another summertime guessing game: “Marco Rubio”, featuring a pool of political reporters groping around for clues as to the finalists for the Republican national ticket.
On Tuesday, this game took a new twist as reports began to surface (anonymously, of course) that Rubio, the junior U.S. senator from Florida and an intriguing vice-presidential pick given both his biography and geography, wasn’t being seriously vetted by Mitt Romney’s presidential camp.
To which, let’s assume:
1) It’s Probably Not True. It didn’t take long for Romney himself to shoot down the rumor; Rubio, he said, was being vetted. So why did this happen in the first place? It’s the dynamics of presidential politics. As the incumbent, Barack Obama has an advantage – the presidential bully pulpit. That was on display last week, when Obama took to the White House’s Rose Garden to announce a shift in federal immigration policy. But Romney, as the challenger, has his own political Uno card: the “veepstakes” and the time-honored tradition of keeping the media in suspense over who’s in and who’s out. With the national convention still another two months away, why would the Romney campaign begin to public winnow its short list this early in the process?
2) The Timing Didn’t Make Sense. Let’s go back to the President’s immigration announcement. You can argue the legality of the move, as well its pandering nature. But you can’t deny that it made for smart election-year politics – taking a sliver of a complex issue (in this case, children innocently brought to this country) and putting the GOP over an emotional barrel. Illegal immigration could be Romney’s Achilles heel in this election. Why, then, would the Romney campaign continue last week’s gain by the President by leaking word that a rising Latino star like Rubio wasn’t in play? It never made sense, which reinforces my first point about the leak seeming wrong from the get-go.
3) If Rubio Were Out, He’d Probably Have Said So Himself. One thing missing in the 2012 veepstakes: a gag order. The very reserved Rob Portman has played along; so has Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Even Romney has had fun with the process, telling the press that only he and a top aide know who’s on the short list. Be it the fate of his federal immigration bill or his just-released and heavily scrutinized autobiography, Rubio hasn’t been a shrinking violet of late. If you’re one for conspiracies, try this one on: Rubio’s discussion of his Mormon childhood in his book so upset the Romney camp as to spark Tuesday’s leak – as a reprimand of sorts. The only problem with that: point #2 and the wretched timing/bad politics of giving the press a chance to revisit the immigration issue.
4) So If Rubio’s Still In, Who Else Is? Again, that’s an answer only Romney and his confidante, Beth Myers, can safely answer. This much seems evident: the list is long – long enough for Romney’s media folks to trot out a new name each week, from now to the convention walk-up (National Journal’s power ranking lists 9 names, not including a wild-card pick). Romney’s campaign is a smart operation – smart enough to learn its mistakes from 2009, smart enough to win the nomination, and smart enough to see weeks’ worth of quality earned media in key battleground states courtesy of veepstakes speculation.
If Rubio (a) is still in play and (b) ends up not getting the nod, chalk it up to one factor: he was too obvious a choice.
And the obvious choice rarely pans out.
Joe Biden wasn’t the odds-on pick in 2008; common sense pointed to Hillary Clinton and a unifying “dream ticket”. Dick Cheney led George W. Bush’s selection process in 2000; few if anybody expected him to land on the ticket. In a similar vein, Al Gore seemed oddly redundant in 1992 when Bill Clinton decided to double-down on country-fried moderation; Dan Quayle was a bolt out of the blue in 1988.
A rare pick that did seem obvious: John Edwards in 2004 – southern charm to John Kerry’s Yankee stiffness. And how’d that turn out? Edwards failed to deliver not only his home state of North Carolina, but also his home county.
Which goes to show to nothing is certain in the art of choosing a running mate. Beginning with rumors surfacing in the shallow end of the pool.