By Debbie Siegelbaum - 07/17/12 11:36 PM EDT
In 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) made history when he chose then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his presidential running mate, making her the first woman on a national GOP ticket.
But, just four years and a great deal of media fallout later, experts question whether Palin poisoned the well for another female Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012.
Several high-profile female politicians have reportedly been in the running, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
But as the vice presidential vetting process continues, experts agree the women trail behind male front-runners, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio), John Thune (S.D.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.).
“You don’t tend to see [the women] mentioned in the top tier,” Swers said.
Ford O’Connell, chairman and co-founder of CivicForumPAC and a GOP strategist, concurs.
“Is there a chance of a female candidate? There’s always a possibility, but it doesn’t seem at this juncture to lean that way,” he told The Hill.
Up-and-comers like Ayotte, Haley and Martinez could appeal to Beltway insiders, O’Connell noted, but Romney’s vice presidential pick really comes down instead to providing potential voters with a level of comfort.
“In such a tight race, they don’t want to risk anything,” he said.
Such was not the case four years ago, however, when McCain elevated Palin from relative obscurity to the national stage.
“With McCain, he was known to be a maverick, somebody who likes to shake things up, and he was way behind in the polls,” Swers said. “Romney is the opposite personality and the race is much tighter.”
Palin’s performance as vice presidential candidate became a cautionary tale for both Democrats and Republicans, experts said.
Both parties were reminded that “the first rule is always do no harm,” George Washington University political science Professor John Sides said.
“What they probably want to do this time is to pick a candidate that seems to not pose any risks, and I think that’s in keeping with Romney’s orientation toward the campaign itself, which is to be very well-prepared,” he added.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway from 2008, according to Sides, has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with character.
“The lesson learned from Palin is not, ‘Don’t nominate a woman as a vice presidential candid-
ate,’ ” he said. “The lesson from Palin is, ‘Be careful who you nominate, male or female.’ ”
O’Connell noted that Palin’s status as a game-changing candidate ultimately had less to do with her sex and more to
do with her background and abilities, something Romney’s campaign will focus on moving forward.
“I think the whole Sarah Palin situation makes [longtime Romney adviser] Beth Myers and Team Romney think twice about anybody they pick,” he said. “And I think a lot of that goes to making sure you’ve dotted your I’s and crossed your T’s with respect to vetting and also with respect to candidate comfort.”
Instead of focusing on a game-changing candidate, the campaign will most likely go for a thoroughly vetted politician who can work well with, and not upstage, Romney, experts said.
“I just don’t see Romney in as desperate a situation that he’s going to want to pick somebody to make a big splash, and that doesn’t seem to be his personality,” Swers said. “I think he’s probably going to pick somebody who he thinks can be president and is strong on the economy. That seems to be the main message of his campaign.”
And the reason a woman might not have a shot this go-round? It’s not due to gender, Swers offered, but because there simply isn’t a female candidate who would fit the bill.
“I just can’t think of a Republican woman right now who fits that profile,” Swers said. “If you found a Republican woman that was like that, maybe he would choose a Republican woman, but I can’t think of anybody that’s necessarily in that mold, because the Republican women that are starting to reach that plateau are just newer in their offices.”
O’Connell noted that many of the potential female VP candidates are “relatively unknown to a lot of people” because they have either never held office (Rice) or, much like Palin, haven’t been in office very long (Ayotte, Martinez, Haley).
When asked if there were other women within the GOP who might be more qualified candidates, experts were hard-pressed to come up with many names.
For them, it wasn’t that Palin had poisoned the well for a 2012 female vice presidential candidate. Instead, it’s that the well of credible female GOP candidates is shallow.
“Republicans don’t have an incredibly deep bench of women who you would think are in the type of positions that would lead someone to become vice president,” Swers said. “There haven’t been a ton of Republican women governors; there’s not a lot of Republican women in Congress.”
Women account for 17 percent of the 112th Congress; of that, the GOP claims only four senators and 25 congresswomen (nine of whom are in their first term). And there are only three GOP governors who are women.
Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), elected to the House in 2010, acknowledged the possibility of a woman grabbing the vice presidential spot this year. But the candidate’s sex isn’t her top priority.
“As far as I’m concerned, I would hope [Romney] would pick the best vice presidential candidate to represent the values of our party so that we can move forward with our conservative agenda,” she said. “That’s most important to me.”
Romney has stayed relatively mum on the crop of running mates as the August Republican convention nears. But his wife, Ann, has said she would be on board with a woman as her husband’s second in command.
“We’ve been looking at that. And I’d love that option as well,” she told “CBS This Morning” earlier this month.
But she also recommends the role go to someone “with the same personality type that will enjoy spending time with him, and also competent, capable and willing to serve this country.”
It’s that caveat that will likely make it tough going for the current crop of relatively untested female GOP candidates. Tough going, but not impossible, experts agree.
“I’m not saying that they couldn’t go with a game-changer at the last minute, but I think whoever they go with is going to be well-vetted and somebody they feel comfortable with given what happened last time around [with Palin],” O’Connell said. “That’s what makes them cautious, not the fact it’s a female.”