Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's trifecta Tuesday night has placed the fall presidential campaign, in Winston Churchill's words, "at the end of the beginning." Both Romney and President Barack Obama have now shifted into full general-election campaign mode.
Tuesday's outcomes in Wisconsin, Maryland, and the District of Columbia put at center stage Obama's and Romney's prospective vice-presidential running mates this fall.
Vice President Joe Biden appears secure as Obama's No. 2. But there is little security in the job. President Franklin Roosevelt won four presidential elections with three different running mates. President Dwight Eisenhower considered dropping Vice President Richard Nixon in his 1956 second-term campaign. President John F. Kennedy, before his death, was considering the same move regarding Vice President Lyndon Johnson in his looming 1964 re-election campaign.
Polling, before vice-presidential candidates' selections, invariably shows that presidential candidates run more strongly alone than they do with any running mate. But, since running mates must be chosen, they are selected to a) do the least damage possible to No. 1; b) help unify the party after divisive nominating contests; or c) bring regional or ideological balance to the ticket. The nominee for No. 2 should, theoretically, be a person fully qualified in his or her own right for the presidency. But that sometimes is forgotten in the rush to satisfy the other three criteria.
Vice-presidential candidates can make a difference between winning and losing. The most notable modern example was in Johnson's selection as No. 2 by Kennedy in 1960. JFK and LBJ were not friends. JFK's campaign manager, Robert Kennedy, and LBJ actively disliked each other. John Kennedy offered the vice-presidential nomination to Johnson, half expecting him to reject it and opt to remain as Senate Majority Leader. When Johnson did accept, Robert Kennedy attempted to reverse the decision, offering the vice-presidential nomination to Sen. Hubert Humphrey, the national liberal leader who was on good terms with the Kennedys. When Humphrey declined, the Kennedy-Johnson ticket was sealed. As it turned out, Johnson won the election for Kennedy by carrying Texas. Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter's 1976 selection of Sen. Walter Mondale as his running mate not only helped him win a close general-election but provided him with an experienced vice president who balanced his own inexperience in office.
There have been several examples on the negative side. Sen. George McGovern's one-sided 1972 loss to Nixon was sealed by his selection, then dropping, of Sen. Tom Eagleton as his running mate. Vice President Mondale was hurt in 1984 by his running-mate choice of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, whose husband turned out to have mob ties.
The selections of Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, Sen. Dan Quayle, and Dick Cheney, respectively, by Nixon, George Bush the Elder, and Bush the Younger demonstrated bad judgments by the presidential nominees. Agnew was forced to resign from the vice presidency because of corruption. Quayle was badly over his head in the office. Cheney teamed with his pal, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, to convince George W. Bush to wage an ill-advised war in Iraq. Agnew and Quayle, in particular, were selected because they were nonentities who brought neither political help nor harm to the men who chose them.
The most recent bad running-mate decision, of course, was Sen. John McCain's 2008 choice of a totally unprepared Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin over Sen. Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, and then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Neither Obama nor Romney is likely to stumble in choosing a No. 2 for this fall.
Obama's logical 2008 choice for No. 2 would have been his principal competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. But, for a variety of reasons, he and she decided that she was better suited to be Secretary of State. (Obama, it should be noted, also was anxious to see his rival Hillary leave the Senate, where she would have had an independent political base from which to challenge him). Biden had been chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He also filled a political gap for Obama as a candidate with blue-collar, Middle-Atlantic-state origins who could appeal to so-called Reagan Democrats not drawn to Obama's more elitist politics (or, frankly, his race).
Biden has been a loyal and active defender of the administration and there is no present reason Obama should want to dump him. However, should Romney show unexpected strength before the party conventions, it is conceivable that Obama might want to create excitement and drama by replacing him with the aforementioned Hillary, who said early last year that she would step down as Secretary of State, no matter what happened, at the end of 2012. The odds of Clinton being picked are small. But the possiblity should not be dismissed entirely, especially if Obama trails in the polls going into Democrats' summer convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Romney, a moderate, entirely conventional Republican, is not someone who will make a risky or dramatic choice, He clearly will not choose Santorum as his No. 2; he will not want to carry Santorum's social-issue baggage into the fall election. Santorum's evangelical and Tea Party supporters are unlikely to vote for Obama in any case.
Romney's obvious alternatives include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose political appeal parallels Biden's; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has Hispanic appeal; Pawlenty, another moderate popular in the pivotal Midwest; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, from a state Romney must carry; and even Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the House budge chair and author of the budget plan on which Romney will run and which he must advocate. Among the above, Christie and Pawlenty are the safest choices. They are credible, knowledgeable, and could help carry states where Romney will need help.
If Romney decides to make the fall campaign a "clear choice" campaign — that is, offering a clear choice between his own vision of governance and that of Obama — he could choose Ryan. Ryan's budget has some political vulnerabilities but he is smart and knowledgeable and would be a formidable debate opponent for Biden and media spokesman for the GOP ticket. Democrats might think Ryan an easy target, because of their characterizations of his budget, but he can hold his own in fast company.
Most immediately, Santorum must make a decision about his further campaigning. He no doubt is praying on it. In his election-night statement Tuesday, he spoke bravely of carrying his home state of Pennsylvania at the end of this month and of a nominating process that was "only at the halfway point." But several other primaries will be held on the same night as Pennsylvania's, including New York's, and Romney is favored to win them all. Santorum is running low on money and risks damaging his future in the Republican Party by blasting Romney, the prospective nominee, when he obviously has no chance of being nominated himself. I make it 50-50 that Santorum swallows his pride and desire for further attention and steps aside in the next two weeks.