Rice buzz dominates Washington

Political observers are asking whether Mitt Romney could pick Condoleezza Rice as his running mate a day after a story on the Drudge Report said she has emerged as the front-runner.

Strategists acknowledge picking the former Bush administration secretary of State would be a bold, unconventional choice that could broaden support for Romney among independents.

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Yet many questioned whether floating Rice’s name as a front-runner was really aimed at shifting the political discussion from Romney’s tenure at the private-equity firm Bain Capital. Skeptics pointed to reasons why Rice could hurt a Romney ticket.

Picking an African-American woman could help Romney narrow the gap with President Obama among women and African-Americans, and Rice would bring foreign policy credentials to the ticket.

Most importantly, she’d bring excitement and flair — she’s considered a star by grassroots conservatives.

But there are also downsides.

Rice helped launch the Iraq War as former President George W. Bush’s national security adviser and would raise the profile on that issue just four years after Obama won the presidency on a message of change from the Bush years. The administration is now doing everything it can to argue Romney would return the nation to the Bush years.

Rice has also repeatedly stated that she is pro-abortion rights, which would raise questions for Romney. He had said he would pick a running mate with the same views as him on abortion.

There are signs Romney’s campaign wanted to shift the political narrative.

Less than an hour before the story leaked to Drudge, Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades sent an email to supporters with the tantalizing subject line, "Mitt's VP."

In the email, Rhoades revealed for the first time the relatively innocuous detail that Romney would make his vice presidential pick before the Republican national convention in Tampa. That's hardly surprising — presidential nominees have typically done so — but it represented one of the first substantive public comments made by the Romney team on the vice presidential pick.

Soon after, Drudge blasted out an alert on the top of his high-traffic website alerting readers that a story would soon be forthcoming on Romney’s vice presidential pick.

Considering the timing and the legendary friendship between Rhoades and Drudge — the pair became friends during Rhoades’s time in the press shop for the Republican National Committee — the report was given particular credence.

Count Republican strategist Ford O'Connell among the skeptics when it comes to Romney picking Rice.

“Team Romney appears to be looking for a running mate who is an experienced officeholder, can rally the base and play well in the suburbs. Given that Rice has ties to President George W. Bush, has never held elected office and her positions on abortion and immigration are to the left of Romney, I just don’t see how she fits that bill,” he said in an interview. “I think this is a clever diversion by the Romney folks to change the subject on what has clearly been an off-week for them.”

Romney has struggled this week to beat back persistent attacks from Obama focused on his years at Bain Capital. The Obama campaign argues Romney was complicit at Bain in shipping U.S. jobs overseas.

Romney’s campaign argues the instances cited by the Obama campaign took place after 1999, when Romney left Bain to run the Salt Lake City Olympics.

But just at that argument gained traction, a new report in the Boston Globe on Thursday morning revealed that he remained the company's sole owner, president and CEO for years after.

Then on Friday, the left-leaning Huffington Post reported that Romney served on the board of at least one company Bain invested in after 1999, and testified as much under oath.

There is no evidence that Romney was invested in the day-to-day operations of Bain, but the stories have at the least muddied the waters and have been difficult for Romney to move past.

“I don't know what happened, but it is well timed,” one Republican strategist said of the Rice rumor.

There is evidence Romney is extensively vetting other candidates, though this would not in itself discount the possibility that Rice is a frontrunner.

Earlier this week, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) told ABC News he had already met at least three times with Romney's vetting team and top aide Beth Meyers, who has been put in charge of the vice presidential search.

“He's from a battleground state, he has credibility on the economy, he seems like exactly the kind of person they'd be looking at,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.

Still, Rice has already generated considerable excitement and speculation among prominent conservatives, including Bill Kristol and Rush Limbaugh. And Republican advisers admit she could generate new excitement and enthusiasm.

“She's a very accomplished individual and very widely respected in the conservative community. That could offset well, with Mitt Romney focused on the economy, and her bringing foreign policy credentials,” said Bonjean.