By Justin Sink - 08/09/12 10:00 AM EDT
Democrats want Mitt Romney to make a bold but risky pick for his running mate — someone they could exploit on the campaign trail.
Strategists suggested Wednesday that the choice of popular candidates like House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) or Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell could all excite Romney's conservative base — but provide plenty of fodder for President Obama's reelection campaign.
"When you pick wrong they can be a drag — Dan Quayle was a drag, Sarah Palin was a drag," said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell. "They rarely help much, but when it's the wrong pick it can really hurt."
The increased speculation about Ryan is perhaps most enticing to Democrats, who view his proposed cuts to the federal budget and push to reform Medicare as prime campaign fodder. Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said the Wisconsin lawmaker was the "most risky" candidate Romney is considering — and therefore the one Democrats might be most interested in facing off against.
Thornell said Ryan — who has been championed in recent days by commentator BIll Kristol — represented "high risk and low reward."
"Republicans still haven't found a way to talk about [the Ryan budget] that is persuasive to independent voters, moderate voters, they are still struggling to explain the radical changes he has proposed," said Thornell. "I can just envision a 30-second ad with [former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s] comment about the plan being radical and right-wing social engineering."
On Monday, Obama senior campaign adviser David Axelrod needled House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for not choosing Ryan as his VP favorite, a hint that Chicago could be rooting for the Wisconsin lawmaker.
"Interesting that Boehner weighed in [for] Portman as VP and not his own member, Paul Ryan," Axelrod tweeted. "Is he feeling the weight of [the] Romney-Ryan budget on [the] GOP?"
Other candidates, like McDonnell, might appeal to Romney because they open up important swing states he'll need to capture the Oval Office. But McDonnell's graduate school thesis that criticizes working women — and a controversy in Virginia over legislation that would have forced women seeking an abortion to undergo an invasive ultrasound — could play into the Democratic "war on women” narrative.
"Vaginal probe. That's all I have to say," said Simmons. "If you want to hear the words vaginal probe 500 million times before Election Day, go ahead and pick McDonnell."
Democrats are also bullish on their chances with Rubio, although the popular and young senator would undoubtedly bring some excitement to Romney's ticket — and erode some Hispanic support, one of the president's key base demographics. But Democratic insiders believe that his checkered financial history could pay dividends in opposition research.
"It's high risk because he's young, he doesn't have a lot of experience, and I think he remains largely unvetted — which, given the Palin experience, might give Romney pause," said Thornell.
Still, there are candidates who give Democrats some amount of pause. Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, is admired by many for his ability to appeal to both the conservative base and independent voters.
“Pawlenty probably helps him on the margins seem more moderate and more safe,” said Simmons.
And former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the type of pick that has the possibility to shake up the race in a positive way for the Romney campaign, combining a sense of surprise with serious credentials.
“She clearly has a lot of experience, she's definitely an impressive individual that doesn't seem to be an ideologue,” Thornell said. “You could make some gains with women, she'd be an interesting pick. I don't think Romney's campaign would go that direction, but I think that’s one of the picks that would open a lot of new areas up.”
Rice’s negatives include ties to the Bush administration’s foreign policy, which remains unpopular with voters. Similarly, Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-Ohio) experience as the Budget Director under former President George W. Bush is seen as a liability by some Democrats — although they acknowledge that depends on the narrative that takes hold after his election.
“The Portman pick, however boring it may be, keeps the focus on the president and the economy and may help Romney in Ohio,” said Simmons. “He also gives him some inside Washington credibility on ability to govern.”
While his record with the Bush administration could be a problem, Portman is well-liked among Democrats and members of the media, suggesting Republicans might be able to sell his experience as a positive.
“A lot of Democrats like Rob Portman, they think he’s an honorable guy,” said Thornell, who said the Ohio lawmaker would likely meet the central goal of any vice presidential candidate — to “do no harm.”
The Obama campaign weighed in with their own tongue-in-cheek picks during a press briefing on Air Force One Wednesday, with traveling press secretary Jen Psaki floating some of their own preferred candidates.
“We all think Newt Gingrich or Michele Bachmann would be an excellent choice for Mitt Romney,” Psaki quipped.
But the Obama aide looked mostly to telegraph confidence, saying none of the names being suggested worried the campaign.
“I’ll also add that any way you cut it ... we’d much rather have Vice President Biden on our side campaigning across the country, in the debates, out there standing up for the president than any of the motley crew that Mitt Romney is choosing between,” Psaki said.