Romney's Veepstakes: Searching for Mr. (or Ms.) Right

I am about to break a promise I made to you. I said this would be a safe space, one that would not turn itself over to rank speculation about the vice presidential sweepstakes.

But the candidates for president have invested so much time and energy trying to change the subject from whatever they don't want to talk about this week that it has become nearly impossible to land anywhere else.

Besides, I don't believe you when you say you don't care. Don't you people remember Lyndon Johnson? Dick Cheney? Vice presidents do matter. I've been reminded of that twice while sitting in the moderator's chair at debates, dreaming up polite ways in which to phrase the "you're-a-heartbeat-away" question.

So I am giving in. If my choice of political analysis is explaining why President Obama hates business (as the Romney campaign would have me do), or explaining what Mitt Romney is hiding bynot releasing his back tax returns (as the Obama campaign would have me do), I'll choose the Veepstakes.

Herewith, an alphabetical guide through the trial balloons, wild speculation, and received conventional wisdom.

(Truth in advertising: Much of this is drawn from the work of friends and colleagues much better plugged-in than I. I freely admit that I have no idea what Romney will do, or when he will do it.)

Sen. Kelly Ayotte: A first-term senator from New Hampshire, she has many attractive characteristics. She campaigns well with Romney. She represents a battleground state. Her husband is an Iraq war veteran. And she is new enough to the national scene not to have made major mistakes (that we know of).

Former Gov. Jeb Bush: If it were possible to poll the Republican establishment, he would be their pick hands-down. He was a popular governor of an important state. He has that dynasty thing going. He is ahead of the curve on immigration. And he represents Florida, the most famous swing state of them all. But it took him an uncomfortably long time to endorse Romney this spring.

Gov. Chris ChristieA colorful and blunt rising star, it's hard to imagine Christie would not cast a shadow on Romney every time he opened his mouth to say what he really thinks — which he does frequently. Plus, Christie is from New Jersey, a fairly blue state. This week's reporting has him taking a keynote speaker's role at the Republican National Convention. Sounds about right.

Gov. Bobby Jindal: The Louisiana governor has been a good soldier this summer, traveling the country and appearing on television on behalf of the Republican nominee. Campaigning in Ohio this week, he dutifully lashed out at the Obama campaign. "They've distorted what Governor Romney did as governor," he said. "They distorted what he did in the private sector. They've even gone after what he did in high school." He added, "I'm just glad we're not talking about what I did in high school." It was a joke, but do they vet for that?

Gov. Susana Martinez: There is something about a blank slate that holds great appeal for some candidates. New Mexico's Martinez, who is a first-term governor with a Hispanic surname from a purple state, looks great on paper. But she says no. "It's humbling, but I'm not interested" sounds pretty definite. On the other hand, that was in April. Things change.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty: Currently the insiders' favorite pick, Minnesota's Pawlenty has been placed in the odd position of proving that he is not too boring to run with Romney. "If you goad me into it, I'll show you my tats," he told Fox News host Neil Cavuto. "I'm not as flashy as some, but compared to some others, I think I'm right in there," he added. Pawlenty has been on this merry-go-round before. He was vetted as Sen. John McCain's nominee in 2008 before being cast aside in favor of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. A plus this time: Although Pawlenty competed against Romney for the presidential nomination, he dropped out so quickly — after a disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa straw poll last summer — that he didn't really get the chance to trash Romney the way other competitors did.

Sen. Rob PortmanAnother member of the square-jaw caucus, Portman has been another consistent surrogate for Romney. It helps a great deal that he hails from Ohio, a must-win state. And it may help more that he has been the GOP's go-to guy in debate preparation sessions for decades — assuming the role of everyone from Hillary Rodham Clinton (opposite Senate candidate Rick Lazio) to Barack Obama (against McCain in 2008). Can't hurt.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: She apparently wowed a group of conservative activists at a recent Romney donor retreat in Utah, but there's one problem. She says no, and she says it emphatically. Over and over. That works for me.

Sen. Marco RubioWhat's not to like? A fresh face who represents a critical state — Florida — and is beloved by tea party activists who still regard Romney with suspicion. Plus, he can be an attack dog when warranted, as in this recent tweet: "Listening to @BarackObama wage #classwarfare in #Jacksonville #Florida.Parts of it sound like speech by left-wing 3rd world leader." Romney says Rubio is on his list, but in this closely held environment, it's hard to tell red herrings from reality anymore.

Rep. Paul Ryan: Steely eyed, resolute, and the ultimate budget deficit hawk, Ryan is also a tea party favorite and a sought-after speaker in Republican circles well outside of his native Wisconsin. But Congress as an institution is not exactly popular these days, and Romney has to be thinking outsiders can be of greater help.

Sen. John Thune: Rounding out the square-jawed caucus, South Dakota's Thune recently committed the ultimate faux pas. He admitted that he is on the list. Kind of. Asked by The Hill newspaper whether he was being vetted by the campaign, he responded, "Well, I think the question on that — the way we've always answered it, tried to answer that, is that the campaign — that's a question for them to answer, they've got a process in place, we're respectful of that." Read what you want into that.

There are other names on various lists, including Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and South Carolina Gov.Nikki Haley. Each could give any GOP ticket a boost. But we are fast approaching the point where all speculation is futile. Romney is on the verge of a decision, and when he announces, all the fun will be over (or just beginning).

Which is why I am breaking my promise to you now. But who am I missing and why? Leave a comment here or tweet me @pbsgwen.