By Josh Lederman - 04/30/12 11:30 PM EDT
Mitt Romney returned to New Hampshire on Monday flanked by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a rising GOP star and popular senator whom many suspect is on Romney’s vice presidential shortlist.
Putting Ayotte on the presidential ticket could help Romney with female voters, a demographic he is losing to President Obama by double digits, according to recent polling. But by picking Ayotte — a white, Northeastern Republican — Romney could forfeit an opportunity to add geographic and ethnic diversify to his ticket.
“Now more than ever we need Mitt Romney’s leadership in the White House,” Ayotte said Monday as she and Romney toured a fishing pier in Portsmouth, N.H. “I have just one message to our fishermen and to every small-business owner in America: Help is on the way.”
Romney’s aides have kept a tight lid on conjecture about what he is or isn’t looking for in a vice presidential candidate as he and a top aide, Beth Myers, begin their search.
But former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu (R), a Romney surrogate and campaign adviser, told reporters Monday that there are about 20 names on the list. Sununu called Ayotte a strong candidate but pointed out that she and Romney both hail from the same part of the country.
Selecting a woman to join the ticket would match the unsolicited advice being doled out by prominent Republicans across the country. And few doubt that Ayotte has the discipline and knowledge base to be a viable candidate — a major concern within the GOP after the selection of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) in 2008.
“When you make this decision, you consider the upside and the downside. But I think you consider the downside more,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist. “The question is, ‘What’s the worst the media could report in the 48 to 72 hours after we name this person?’ ”
Although Romney and his team, known for their methodical, leave-no-stone-unturned approach to campaign planning, are likely to narrow the field down in the coming weeks, most observers expect a final decision won’t be announced until July at the earliest.
If the race is looking strong for Romney come the end of the summer, he might choose the safest, least risky candidate, Mackowiak said. But if Obama is up 5 or 7 points on Romney, he could go for a riskier option.
That choice could depend on what the polls suggest are Romney’s biggest vulnerabilities come July or August.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) could alleviate some of Romney’s difficulties appealing to Hispanic voters, many of whom reacted negatively to his far-right stance on immigration during the primary. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has an unmatched ability to delight conservative audiences, but has a tendency to go off script and could risk overpowering the candidate himself. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would lend both racial diversity and vast foreign-policy experience to the ticket, but has indicated little interest in running and carries the baggage of the unpopularity of President George W. Bush.
Ayotte’s biggest shortcoming is her lack of experience; the first-term senator has been in office for less than two years. Counteracting that weakness is her proven record as both a fiscal and social conservative.
The first female attorney general in New Hampshire’s history, Ayotte defended the state against challenges to its law requiring that parents be notified before minors undergo an abortion. When Democratic Gov. John Lynch (N.H.) asked her to drop the case, Ayotte demurred and took it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
About five years later, she launched a bid to replace retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), and was opposed in the GOP primary by Tea Party activists, including Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). She prevailed nonetheless, and after winning by fewer than 2,000 votes in the primary, defeated former Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) in the general election by 23 points.
In the Senate, Ayotte has been a loyal vote for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). She was a vocal supporter of the amendment by Rubio and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in March to allow employers to refuse to cover contraception, a measure intended to override a conflicting decision made by Obama.
“I do not want to wake up on Nov. 7 and find out Barack Obama has another term as president,” Ayotte said in April as she received a “conservative of the year” award from Americans for Prosperity. “If we don’t get this right, if we don’t get the country on the right path and get our country in fiscal order, I’m so fearful for what can happen to this country.”