Mitt Romney’s VP balancing act

Mitt Romney’s general-election campaign has been more aggressive and combative than either President Obama’s campaign or the chattering class ever predicted. 

The new confrontational attitude has shown up everywhere — not just in stump speeches or campaign ads but in Romney’s recent embrace of Donald Trump and his boast about sending hecklers to disrupt an Obama campaign event in Massachusetts.

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As the political world recalibrates its expectations for what the Romney campaign looks like, it’s time to rethink the philosophy guiding his looming vice-presidential pick.

For months, it was assumed that Romney wanted a “safe” pick who would mirror his predisposition toward political safety and dread of gaffes. Theoretically, that would lead Romney to pick a seasoned running mate who’d make few mistakes and attract few headlines but earn approving nods from political gatekeepers. 

A leading incarnation of that archetype seemed to be Sen. Rob Portman — a soft-spoken conservative with impeccable experience and competence who also happened to represent the most important state in the Electoral College: Ohio. 

But Romney’s combative first month could hint that he’s looking to another archetype for vice president — the pugilistic warrior who can go one on one with Joe Biden in a shouting match. 

The theory goes like this: A vice president is traditionally called upon to deliver the toughest attacks, while the nominee takes the relative high road. But if Romney himself is batting the president around like a piñata, why would he pick someone more discreet, safe and mellow for vice president? 

In short, a more aggressive campaign might warrant a more aggressive pick that complements, rather than contradicts, Romney’s confrontational style.

It’s a philosophy that resonates with Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Sabato speculates that the “surprising level of aggression” from Romney could point to a VP pick who plays “like a junkyard dog rather than a 

Chihuahua.”

“Any VP nominee will go on the attack, just as directed, but the tendency for the press and public will be to put the VP on the back page or the back burner,” Sabato says. “You can’t ignore a high-wattage [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie or [Florida Sen. Marco] Rubio that way.”

With that in mind, the list of likeliest vice presidents might look somewhat different. Bellicosity could be at a premium. 

Fighters include names like Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.).

At the same time, the quieter and more politic voices begin to fall out of favor — Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Portman.

Simply put, on their most combative days, these gentlemen sounds more like genteel leaders of a peacekeeping force than conquering Pattons, and Romney’s approach to the general election, so far, has been all Patton.

That being said, there are some who reject the idea that a newly fanged Romney might mean an even toothier and sharper running mate.

Mark McKinnon, a former presidential strategist and co-founder of No Labels, challenges the notion informing this theory and warns against falling under the deceptive simplicity of a false choice.

“I think Romney will run an aggressive campaign and still pick a safe VP. They can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

That mindset leads McKinnon to pick Portman as the likeliest choice, with Christie “a close second.”

But the name “Chris Christie” is anything but safe and doesn’t exactly evoke a Volvo wagon with hundreds of airbags. In fact, Christie’s popularity almost seems a direct function of his riskiness. Those confrontational YouTube moments of him smacking down his opponents are anything but safe, and seem to be behind much of his national popularity. In fact, without them, he’d probably be just another Republican governor with an effective record — in other words, another McDonnell.

Often, safer candidates are less aggressive, while the aggressive are less safe. That means that both safety and aggression in a running mate could be a very tall order. Romney might, indeed, have to choose between one or the other.

The big question is whether he can find someone who plays as aggressively as he does but who will also emerge unscathed from mistakes or the perpetual spotlight and the media’s insatiable need for blood. 

The combination of those two attributes in a candidate — safety and aggression — often seems contradictory, at worst, and elusive at best. Romney’s challenge is to find one who balances both.