Speculation grows over Romney VP pick

Time is running out for Mitt Romney to make his vice presidential selection, as speculation intensifies over whom the presumptive Republican nominee will choose as his running mate — and when.

The moment will be the biggest one yet for Romney, who will use the selection to set the tone for the remainder of his campaign — and try to derail an Obama campaign that has steadily protected leads in pivotal swing states.

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Republican strategists say Romney's weekend bus tour through these swing states — including stops in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio — could be the perfect occasion to both regain momentum and debut his running mate.

"It couldn't be a better scene-setter than at a bus tour going through battleground states to kick off the weekend," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "That would be great. Going into the battlegrounds, you're going to have a massive following; the pick would be covered widely on the Sunday shows, and likely continue into next week, when the candidates would split off and we start learning about the pick's history and biography."

The tour is scheduled to begin Saturday in Virginia, where Gov. Bob McDonnell will be in attendance, then head to North Carolina on Florida, swing south to Florida on Monday, and conclude in Ohio on Tuesday. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), also expected to be on Romney's vice presidential shortlist, will be in attendance on the final day. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is reportedly joining a few of the Florida stops.

"Those states — those aren't swing states, those are must-have-for-Romney states," said GOP strategist Ford O'Connell. "He needs them to win, which is leading to the vice presidential speculation. They're starting to realize the clock is ticking, and they need to make a push to win over white, middle-class workers in those states with a message about the future and where the party is going, which is why in some ways it's an ideal time."

Recent polls have shown President Obama with leads in Ohio, Virginia and Florida, while Romney is favored in North Carolina. Romney will likely need to win all four to secure the presidency. The campaign has not yet advised where, specifically, he will be campaigning in the swing states.

Romney spent Monday off the campaign trail meeting with staff at his home in New Hampshire. Beth Myers, the aide placed in charge of the vice presidential search, was in attendance, as were senior campaign strategists Eric Fehrnstrom and Stu Stevens.

"Sometime in the next few days would add some extra firepower into the mix, and it shakes up the race," Bonjean said. "Republicans are so enthusiastic to elect a new president and throw President Obama out of office they'll likely be excited by whoever the pick is, and you'll see a lot of coverage of that enthusiasm."

Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee fanned the speculative flames with the announcement of the first wave of speakers at the convention later this month in Tampa, Fla. Among the announcements: prominent speaking spots for former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, both of whom were rumored to be under consideration for the nod. Their inclusion in the initial round of scheduling suggests the Romney campaign has been eliminating candidates from contention.

And a heavy emphasis on female and Hispanic speakers in the early wave of convention announcements suggests Republicans could be looking to bracket a white male pick by Romney.

"They need to be inclusive, which we saw with the first round of speakers," said O'Connell. "They realize that the Republican Party cannot be seen just as old white fat men."

Still, many say the timing of the announcement would be curious, especially since it would be competing with the Olympics' closing ceremony for attention — and would come over a weekend where many Americans are tuned out from news coverage.

"It seems to me announcing on a Saturday doesn't make a whole lot of sense," said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. "I think one question is obviously the Olympics … and I think on weekends a lot of normal people tune out. People get into a more normal news-consumption mode during the week than they do during the weekend."

Instead, Mackowiak says, it would make more sense for Romney to try to have his cake and eat it too, earning coverage off the mounting speculation in key swing states throughout the weekend and then debuting the candidate at a rally in his or her hometown early in the following week, in effect getting twice as much traction out of a single announcement.

"These events on their own can be big and important moments for the Romney campaign, where they now have victory offices, the RNC is involved, and they have the ability to build larger events that are better in crucial swing states," said the GOP strategist.

Meanwhile, Democrats are looking to take advantage of their two-on-one campaigning advantage while they still have it. Vice President Biden visited the swing state of Nevada over the weekend, speaking to the Disabled American Veterans national convention. And Biden was an active part of the Obama campaign's response to rebut claims by Romney that the president's team was looking to restrict military early voting rights in Ohio.

"Biden's a big part of the campaign's connection to the type of blue-collar voters that can swing the election — more so than any Democrat than possibly Clinton," O'Connell said. "The Obama campaign knows they won after having their best turnout with white males since 1976 last time, and that's not going to be there, so you see them really taking it into consideration."