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Romney, GOP must remember lessons from Palin veepstakes

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Republican presidential candidate Arizona Sen. John McCain and his vice presidential candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin wave at a campaign rally at Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania on October 28, 2008.


The Republican Party’s 2008 experiment with Sarah Palin looms over Mitt Romney as he begins pivoting to the general election and looks to select a running mate. His choice of a vice presidential candidate likely won’t be made known for months, but the preliminary deliberations over who might round out the GOP ticket this fall are likely to have already begun.

And it’s impossible to separate that process from John McCain’s selection of Palin, then the governor of Alaska, as his running mate. Palin achieved her initial purpose of exciting conservative voters, but her selection eventually created as many problems as it solved. She excited the conservative base and shook up the race, but also turned off independents and raised questions about whether she was equipped to serve at that level of office.

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That experience led former White House chief of staff John E. Sununu – a former governor of New Hampshire who’s become one of Romney’s top surrogates – to warn Monday in the Boston Globe: “In the end, there is only one imperative: don’t blow it.”

The Romney campaign insists that it continues to focus on winning the necessary number of delegates to secure the nomination, and not the machinations behind the general election.

But the Romney campaign is likely to have already assembled a private list of about 20 to 30 names that will be winnowed down to the eventual short list of candidates, said Ted Frank, a lawyer by trade who was part of McCain’s vetting team in 2008.

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Republican vice-presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks on day three of the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Energy Center on September 3, 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Selecting a vice president traditionally hinges on some combination of three criteria: whether the running mate could serve as vice president, a comfort level between the nominee and their No. 2, and whether the pick serves politically. How campaigns balance those criteria differ from cycle-to-cycle, but Romney’s most pressing political considerations include expanding the electoral map and closing the gap with conservatives – with whom he’s struggled during the primary.

“I think Team Romney will be torn by going with a conventional pick, most likely [Ohio Sen. Rob] Portman, or an outside-the-box pick with a Hispanic,” said Mark McKinnon, a political adviser to President George W. Bush.

The need to win back Latino voters, who have favored President Barack Obama over Romney in recent polls, has fueled speculation about whether the Republican might tap Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, as his vice presidential pick.

“They clearly don't want the pick to appear political, at the same time their hole is so deep with Hispanics it's hard to imagine how Republicans can win without significantly addressing the problem,” McKinnon said. “And a Hispanic VP would be best way to fix it – maybe the only way.”

But Rubio and many of the other names popularly included on reporters’ short lists of vice presidential candidates – like Palin before them – either have been on the job for just a few years, or lack the experience of having previously gone through the vetting process and campaigning on the national level.

“I think the problem with being thrust into the limelight is going to be true of any candidate who hasn't been through a national campaign,” said Frank. “Just optically, they're going to want to avoid certain comparisons [with Palin], because it will distract from the message.”

That makes for a difficult choice in the Romney camp. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have each endured the scrutiny of the presidential primary, but their relationship with Romney has been nothing if not acrimonious. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has acted as a Romney surrogate since ending his own bid for the GOP nomination last August, but he’s regarded as a relatively bland (if safe) pick.

Palin herself urged Romney to go for an outside-the-box pick during a Tuesday interview on NBC’s TODAY.

“I would say it doesn't matter if that person has national-level experience or not. They're going to get clobbered by the lamestream media who don't like the conservative message,” she said. “What I would advise Mitt Romney or whomever the nominee would be is, is don't necessarily play it safe and do just what the GOP establishment expects them to do.”

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin talks to TODAY's Matt Lauer about the economy, the 2012 election and her advice for the GOP presidential hopefuls.

That type of choice would risk a re-hash of the 2008 experience, which saw the vice presidential pick struggle in getting up-to-speed on issues, and sometimes departing from the presidential candidate’s script. A way to defuse that might be to roll out a running mate well before the August Republican National Convention in order to allow media scrutiny of the pick, and put any negative coverage behind the campaign.

Frank argued that Romney’s selection will ultimately come down to the candidate himself, in terms of what qualities he values in a running mate and the risks he’s willing to incur in making his choice.

“It all comes back to the selection process. It's really going to vary from campaign to campaign, in terms of what gets someone stricken from the list,” he said. “Everyone has costs and benefits. You're looking at everything they've done, their resume, their list of accomplishments and controversies.”