WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney will soon announce the biggest decision of his presidential campaign — the name of his running mate — and, like a traveler in a lonely wood, the Republican can go one of two ways.
Safe and boring, or bold but risky?
Suspense has mounted in recent days as observers try to pin down which path the White House hopeful will take, and when he will unveil his much-anticipated decision to American voters.
The Romney campaign has deployed potential vice presidential picks like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Senator Rob Portman of Ohio on the campaign trail to lash President Barack Obama on his economic record.
Now, after what has been widely criticized as a poor month for the challenger, Romney has an opportunity to set the agenda for the last three weeks of August as voters and the emdia digest his VP choice.
His bus tour through four states including the huge battlegrounds of Florida and Ohio kicks off on Saturday, and his formal nomination will reach a crescendo at the Republican convention at month’s end.
In between — or perhaps even at the start of the bus tour, as a few conservative pundits have ventured — Romney will unveil his running mate.
Pawlenty and Portman are seen as rising to the top in the veepstakes. Both are down-to-earth conservatives and safe bets who would fulfill the key mandate of any vice presidential pick: do no harm.
In that respect they could be perfect for Romney, who one insider described as a “risk-averse operator.”
And in the aftermath of 2008, when Republican nominee John McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin was widely seen as unprepared for the global stage, Romney has said he wants a partner ready to step into the Oval Office if need be.
“On balance, I’d be surprised if it’s not Portman or Pawlenty,” Professor Joel Goldstein of Saint Louis University School of Law, who is perhaps the top expert on the US vice presidency, told AFP.
The two men are different in key ways.
Pawlenty is a Washington outsider like Romney but, as the son of a truck driver, he has something the multimillionaire ex-businessman Romney lacks: a blue-collar upbringing that bestows credibility with the man on the street.
Portman by contrast has been a lawmaker in both chambers of Congress, a disciplined conservative who has served as budget director and US trade representative under president George W. Bush.
And crucially, Portman’s Ohio is perhaps the toughest battleground of all in 2012, and with no Republican having won the White House without winning Ohio, electoral geography looms large.
But there have been recent conservative rumblings that Romney, who trails Obama in most swing states according to polls, has to make a dramatic pick to change the narrative.
This could be someone like Congressman Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman whose controversial budget plan highlights the debate about the role of government.
“Go bold, Mitt!” implored conservative icon William Kristol in the Weekly Standard magazine.
“Pick Paul Ryan, the Republican Party’s intellectual leader, the man who’s laid out the core of the post-Obama policy agenda and gotten his colleagues in Congress to sign on to it,” he wrote.
The Wall Street Journal on Thursday argued that a Ryan pick would give Romney the best chance to “make this a big election over big issues.”
Goldstein, however, warned that on the campaign trial Ryan’s budget plan, while catnip to fiscal conservatives, could prove to be “political dynamite, and if Romney picks Ryan he owns his budget plan.”
Kristol has a back-up plan: Marco Rubio, a senator from Florida and “the GOP’s most gifted young politician,” an embodiment of Tea Party conservatism.
Rubio, who is Cuban-American, might help Romney win over Hispanic voters, but he has barely 18 months of experience on the national stage.
Some experts are not convinced that a running mate holds much sway.
“On a national level, it’s almost insignificant,” said Alan Abramowitz, a politics professor at Emory University, noting that very rarely has a running mate flipped a state into the candidate’s column.
And picking a rigid conservative running mate won’t help Romney with his key task, which is “winning over the swing voters in key states,” he said.
One could look to the past for clues to how Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, might be parsing his future.
Every governor since 1952 who became president — including Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter — picked a Washington insider as his VP, Goldstein noted.
That would leave Portman in an ideal spot, and Pawlenty, a 2008 runner-up to Palin, again left in the wings.
Ultimately it’s a guessing game, only Romney has the answer, and the final pick could be someone unproven and off the political class’s radar.
“History is a great indicator, until it’s not,” Goldstein said.