WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney promises to name his vice presidential running mate before the party convention in late August, and the betting is the risk-averse candidate will pick the safest possible candidate — certainly no one like Sarah Palin who was pulled from obscurity four years ago by John McCain.
With little expected to happen in the White House race between now and the convention, observers have turned to speculating about who Romney will choose, watching every move the various possible candidates make during the summer campaigning. It's a bit like the Kremlinology the world engaged in back in the days of the Soviet Union.
Many political experts are predicting Romney will turn to Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, all prominent Republican figures, each a tantalizing pick for different reasons.
There recently was buzz surrounding Condoleezza Rice, who served as former President George W. Bush's secretary of state. She has said, however, that she was happy in her return to academia.
While some believe that the vice presidential candidate will make no difference to voters when they cast ballots in November to choose between Romney and Obama, others believe the choice can fill in geographic or ideological gaps for Romney, suggesting the wealthy northeasterner might opt for a conservative southerner or someone from the Midwest.
But no one knows except Romney and his closest advisers. The candidate has only said he will make the announcement before the Republican national convention in late August.
Whoever is picked, Romney will most likely choose a candidate who will not produce an uproar among all-important middle of the road voters.
With both presidential candidates locked in one of the closest races in history and the nation gripped in a deep partisan divide, so-called swing voters, those in the middle of the political spectrum, will play an oversized role.
"While Romney still needs to pull things together with some of the most conservative Republicans, his choice can't be attached to the most extreme right wing of the party or he will chance losing the moderates," said Robin Lauermann, a political scientist at Messiah College.
If there is a chink in the Romney armor among fellow Republicans it is his history of having been too moderate when he was Massachusetts governor. That was the reason he faced such a major battle in eliminating fellow Republicans who were challenging him for the nomination. Deep conservatives like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum took months to vanquish in the primary contest.
Until shifting his stance, Romney backed abortion rights. He took a moderate stance on the right of gays to marry and, most important, he instituted a reform of the Massachusetts health care system that became the model for the one Obama pushed through Congress in 2010.
Now Romney is anti-abortion, vague on gay marriage and promises to repeal the national health care overhaul.
"He has to choose someone to the right of him," said Harry Wilson, professor of public affairs at Roanoke College. "He's got to do something to help get the right wing energized."
The list of men and women who might fill the bill is extensive.
Perhaps the best odds are placed on Portman. He serves as Romney's campaign chairman in Ohio, was a longtime congressman there and served as a trade representative and top budget official in the George W. Bush administration.
Portman is safe, has Washington experience and is from Ohio. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying that state. Obama won Ohio in 2008 and the state is one of the most important battlegrounds this time around.
Also at the top of the most-speculated about candidates are Rubio and Jindal. Both men are young, age 41, and beloved among conservatives nationally. Both are minorities. Rubio is Hispanic; Jindal is Indian American. Either would help slice away the Republican stereotype of being the party of older white men.
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte would fill that need as well, and she, like Rubio and Portman, hails from a swing state — the dozen or so that cannot be relied upon to vote either Republican or Democrat in a presidential contest. The president is chosen, not according to the national popular vote, but in state by state contests. All but about a dozen U.S. states are already seen as locked in either for Obama or Romney.
Another swing-state possibility is Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is popular there and brings a good record on the economy and job creation — the central theme of the Romney campaign.
Then there is Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, who gets along with Romney personally and has been a willing voice for his campaign since dropping out of the primary contest last summer.
The most controversial possibility may be New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He is among the most popular Republican politicians. His no-nonsense, tough-talking persona is a good compliment to the more reserved Romney and a strong contrast with the loftier rhetoric of Obama. Christie's attraction to the limelight, however, would be an awkward fit for the vice presidency and has only held a major elected office for three years.
On down the list is Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who has emerged as the tax policy expert in the Republican party. His budget proposals have drawn wide praise from Republicans intent on cutting the national deficit, and he is widely cast as the Republican foil to Obama, articulating an alternative vision of how the federal government could work. He too is from a swing state.
His biggest drawback is the stringent spending cuts he recommends, including a fundamental restructuring of Medicare, the vastly popular national health insurance program for Americans age 65 and older. That could alienate the natural Republican base among older voters.
Then there is the candidate who may be most likely to emerge at Romney's side: none of the above. It's all guesswork after all and surprise can be the spice the enlivens an already tight race. But given Romney's aversion to risk, it is certain he will not turn to a Palin-like running mate.
She was the choice of McCain when he knew he had to do something dramatic to overcome Obama. The little-known and poorly vetted former Alaska governor turned out to hurt McCain more than she helped.
"In McCain's case it was the last play of the game, and he had to try to shake things up," Wilson said. "That's not Romney's reality."