By Christian Heinze - 06/27/12 09:00 AM EDT
Mitt Romney is on the defensive.
President Obama’s campaign has narrowed its attack on Romney’s experience at Bain Capital into one provocative charge — that Romney personally profited from the outsourcing of American jobs — and argues the presumptive GOP nominee would oversee a similar migration of jobs if elected president.
Clearly, the Obama campaign smells opportunity, and every indication is that it’ll continue to pound Romney on the issue of outsourcing and Bain Capital.
If this does, indeed, represent the new normal in Obama’s argument against Romney, it might reconfigure the GOP nominee’s calculus for picking a vice presidential running mate.
The Midwest and its perpetual angst over outsourced jobs would become ground zero in the presidential race, thus creating the demand for a running mate who could connect with Rust Belt residents and provide a counterbalance to Romney’s image as a wealthy executive — much as Vice President Biden is seen as a blue-collar offset to Obama’s professorial image.
Within the confines of this increasingly likely race, some vice-presidential prospects find their hopes rising and others falling.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty: During his presidential campaign, Tim Pawlenty was fond of regaling voters with stories of growing up in the downscale meatpacking areas near St. Paul, Minn.
In one exemplary interview with Politics Daily last year, he rather dramatically underscored his blue-collar roots by invoking phrases like “fingernails dirty,” “grit and stuff of real life,” “truck driver,” “lunch-bucket,” “Gordie Howe,” “puked,” “pro-beer,” “scrapper,” “John Mellencamp” and “Springsteen.”
Those are all phrases that glide off Pawlenty’s tongue much more easily than they do Romney’s (can you imagine Romney ever claiming he was “pro-beer”?), and as such, Pawlenty could form an effective bridge between blue-collar, working-class voters and Romney.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: His chances to become vice president are often dismissed, thanks to his radio and TV shows, but he’s repeatedly refused to rule out serving as Romney’s running mate, and is starting to show up on more and more lists as a contender.
Like Pawlenty, he’s someone who has a history of contrasting his blue-collar appeal with Romney’s aristocratic mien.
During the 2008 presidential primaries, he famously remarked about the difference between himself and Romney, “I want to be the president who reminds you of the guy you work with, not the guy who laid you off.”
And, indeed, Huckabee used that common touch to rack up more delegates than did Romney in the 2008 nomination fight. Much like Rick Santorum in 2012, Huckabee was strongest where Romney was weakest — among evangelicals and the working class.
Further bolstering his credibility with blue-collar voters? Huckabee can always talk about his time living in a triple-wide trailer while the governor’s mansion in Arkansas was being renovated.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal: The Louisiana governor has been steadily climbing the ranks of most pundits’ power rankings, but his southern roots, Indian-American heritage, and fast-talking persona don’t seem uniquely appealing to Midwesterners or working-class voters.
Jindal has a strong record as a reformer at the state level, but much of a vice president’s appeal comes from a visceral connection with voters. First impressions matter, and Jindal doesn’t talk, look or act like a Midwesterner, and thus doesn’t seem uniquely capable of counterbalancing Romney’s image.
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte: While Romney reportedly has strong personal affinity for Ayotte, it’s unclear how she could form an effective bridge between Romney and the working class. Like Romney, she’s from the Northeast and has an impeccable pedigree. She also practiced as a lawyer before becoming political. As such, neither her background nor her role as senator of a Northeastern state provides a particularly strong foundation for a bridge.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman: At first glance, Portman might seem to gain from the shifting battlefield. After all, he’s from Ohio and won his Senate seat in 2010 with 17 percent. But there’s also reason to think that Portman’s stock could dip if outsourcing, specifically, and Bain Capital, generally, become the new points of contention.
During George W. Bush’s administration, Portman served as U.S. Trade Representative — a position suggesting he’s uniquely qualified to talk about overseas jobs, but also uniquely vulnerable.
In the 2010 Senate campaign, Portman’s Democratic opponent, Lee Fisher, claimed that Portman “actually sucked the jobs out of the [Mahoning] Valley and sent them to China.”
The substance of the charge was iffy, but the fact is that Democratic knocks on Portman instantly look very much like their attacks on Romney, and that diminishes Portman’s ability as an effective countervailing force.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio: Rubio is a supremely gifted politician, but like Jindal, doesn’t seem particularly suited to the Midwest, where the Hispanic population is growing but hardly decisive. He can talk about the American Dream effectively, but is less skilled than Pawlenty, for example, at talking about American jobs.
A Rubio pick made the most sense in a race revolving around Hispanic-heavy Southwestern states, but less so in the Midwest, and that region increasingly looks like it will be play the pivotal role in electing the next president.
Six of the last seven polls of Michigan have put the president and Romney within 2 percent of each other in the Wolverine State, and a number of polls have also put Iowa and Wisconsin within the margin of error.
Meanwhile, the region has become even more important to Romney’s hopes in the wake of Obama’s sweeping immigration proposal, which according to a new poll has generated massive enthusiasm among Hispanics in Southwestern states Romney was hoping to flip.
For Romney, the Midwest is now must-win, and that has very important ramifications in selecting a running mate.