How Romney's Dance With Rubio Proves the Veepstakes Matters

By coming forward to insist that he is considering the right's favored candidate, Romney showed his running-mate decision isn't happening in a vacuum.

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On Tuesday morning, ABC reported that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was not being considered as a potential running mate by presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Speculation immediately broke out as to the source and motivation for the information becoming public. Was it a swipe from Rubio enemies within the Romney camp? A leak from friends of Rubio indignant at the oversight? But given that both Rubio's and Romney's camps were displeased by the disclosure -- Rubio's people were annoyed at the apparent slight, while Romney's were galled by both the specter of a leaky operation and the appearance of having slighted an ally -- the likeliest explanation seems this: It was true.

As such, it wasn't all that surprising. Despite his rock-star status on the right, Rubio's veepstakes stock has always been viewed skeptically by the Beltway wise men. Rubio is beloved by Republican Party activists, who see him as both a true believer in the conservative cause (somewhat unaccountably considering his championing of immigration reform and his gestures toward a centrist foreign policy) and a politically potent symbol for a party struggling to insist it's not composed entirely of white men. He has run away with two consecutive vice presidential straw polls conducted by the Conservative Political Action Conference. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans have heard of him, and 42 percent view him favorably, according to a new Gallup poll. And all you have to do is hear Rubio speak to be made abundantly aware of a rare, raw political talent in the Obama mold. He is a great storyteller with a great story to tell, fueled by a burning core of ideological passion, and he rarely gives the same speech twice.

Yet the view of Rubio that has solidified among the Washington political class is of an overly ambitious up-and-comer with skeletons lurking in his past. This view is not unfounded. There is ample evidence that Rubio would have questions to answer were he to ascend to the national stage, as David Graham has detailed. Romney's team is more cognizant than most of Rubio's perceived flaws: One of Romney's top advisers, Stuart Stevens, helped run former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's Senate primary campaign against Rubio in 2010, as Rubio adviser Ana Navarro pointed out Tuesday. Romney also does not seem to have the personal rapport with Rubio that he has with some other political allies such as Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan or New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, with whom Romney -- a somewhat peculiar personality -- appears to get on famously. For a Romney inner circle that values discretion and predictability, Rubio has long been seen as a chance not worth taking.

Nonetheless, by the end of the day Tuesday, the kerfuffle generated by the Rubio-not-being-vetted idea, and in particular the backlash from conservatives and Hispanics dismayed to see their man written off seemingly without even token consideration, had painted Romney into a corner. En route to a campaign stop in Holland, Michigan, Romney made a statement to the press: "There are only two people in this country who know who are being vetted and who are not: And that's [senior adviser] Beth Myers and myself. And I know Beth well. She doesn't talk to anybody. The story was entirely false. Marco Rubio is being thoroughly vetted as part of our process."

Apparently, the rule Romney had previously cited about not discussing his vice presidential calculations was not so ironclad. It is, of course, not true, as Romney said, that only he and Myers know who's being considered. Those on the receiving end of the vetting process, who are asked to submit tax records, bank statements and other background information for review, also know whether they're being vetted or not.

You often hear high-minded political pundits declare that the veepstakes doesn't matter, because in the end, we are assured, running mates rarely decide elections. Can we all declare a moratorium on the trope of pundits deciding what voters do and don't care about? It's condescending -- who are they to say what voters, the vast majority of whom they have never met, care about? It's based on a political-science fallacy -- just because voters are smart enough to base their final judgments on policy fundamentals rather than relative trivia doesn't mean they don't welcome a wide range of information. And the implication that the only things that matter in elections are those that move votes is deadeningly reductive in its capitulation to the horse race above all else -- the airy dismissal of interest in political people and stories just because they're, you know, interesting.

It is also fashionable to declare that this sort of speculation about the veepstakes is pointless and wasteful and serves no apparent interest. But look what we learned from the Rubio affair on Tuesday. We learned, above all, that Mitt Romney isn't particularly interested in putting Rubio on the ticket with him; that seems, if anything, truer today than it was yesterday: He had to be unwillingly pushed into feigning interest in his party's favorite running-mate candidate. But we also learned that Rubio has a powerful constituency in the Republican Party that Romney realizes he cannot afford to ignore or alienate; and we learned that Romney, realizing this, is susceptible to pressure. Even with the nomination in hand, Romney apparently remains sensitive to the potential for a backlash from the base. Does that mean it is conceivable that Romney, despite his lofty talk about picking a running mate based solely on that person's ability to serve and govern and without regard for politics, could be pressured into selecting Rubio for the ticket after all? Meanwhile, if Romney now doesn't pick Rubio, after having vetted hm, some will logically assume that's because of something unsavory he discovered in the vetting process -- potentially damaging Rubio by keeping the implicit stain on his reputation.

This is why the veepstakes is not merely a parlor game -- it's an interaction between the public, the press, the political chattering class and the candidate. It is a dance whose participants are constantly sizing each other up. The relation of Romney to Rubio changed on Tuesday: At the beginning of the day, Rubio was not being considered, and at the end he was, at least officially. Something happened as a result of this public dialogue, and the result could change the outcome of Romney's choice.