Mitt Romney's VP Search Takes a Surprising Turn Closer to Home

When New Hampshire's freshman Republican senator Kelly Ayottte marched with Mitt Romney in last week's July 4th parade in Wolfeboro, it triggered speculation that the presumptive nominee is taking Ayotte seriously as prospective running mate. And indeed, despite her slender political resume, he is. There are four good reasons to think that Ayotte, despite the odds, might end up getting the nod:

First, there's Ann Romney, Mitt's wife, who is clearly pushing for a female VP. In recent interviews she has gone out of her way, unprompted, to suggest that her husband is considering a woman for the ticket. Romney has been left to nod in agreement, which suggests that his wife is exerting considerable influence over his campaign.

Second, Romney still has a gender problem. It's nowhere near what it was two months ago when Obama enjoined a 15-17 point lead among women. The current lead is down to high single digits, but narrowing that gap is still a Romney priority. Putting a woman on the ticket is certainly one way to think about achieving this goal.

Third, the pool of available women is shrinking. Two other attractive female candidates, New Mexico governor Susana Martinez and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, have issued firm denials of interest in the VP position. In fact, each has liabilities - Martinez, because of her recent outspoken support for comprehensive immigration reform, and Rice, because she served under George W. Bush. A third prospective candidate, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the party's fourth ranking official, hasn't caught fire, despite being pushed by GOP insiders.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, New Hampshire, which has swung Democratic in four of the last five presidential elections, is clearly in play in 2012. A recent poll found a Romney-Ayotte ticket running in a statistical dead heat with Obama-Biden. Ayotte's popularity in the state has slipped a bit since she was first elected, but her net favorability rating is still positive. And the perception remains that she could help deliver the state to Romney.

How important is New Hampshire in 2012? Given the narrow path open to Romney to win, the Granite State could prove critical this year. In one emerging scenario now being circulated among Republicans, new Hampshire's 4 electoral votes could provide the margin of difference in a race that Romney ends up winning with 270 electoral voters to Obama's 268. Romney would still have t win Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia, but could lose Michigan and Iowa, and all of the Southwestern swing states that Obama carried handily in 2008.

Of course, picking Ayotte isn't without potential pitfalls. It's well known that she owes her Senate victory, in part, to the strong support she received in the GOP primary from Sarah Palin. The former Alaska governor lavished praise and campaign funding on Ayotte, calling her a "Granite State Grizzlie," much to the dismay of rival Tea Party candidate, Ovide Lamontagne, whom Ayotte defeated, albeit narrowly, before going on to crush Democratic Paul Hodes.

In fact, the biggest liability of selecting Ayotte as VP could well be the inevitable comparison it would draw to Palin's role on the GOP ticket in 2008. Some party insiders, speaking off the record, have said that the Palin experience has killed any chance of Romney nominating a woman in 2012. And Romney, unlike John McCain, appears to have consolidated the different wings of the party firmly around his candidacy, which would seem to lessen his need for a risky "game-changing" selection a la Palin.

Moreover, as with Palin, there's some question about how much Ayotte would really help Romney with non-Republican women. She's a staunch pro-life conservative and she opposes gay rights. Those stances will earn her kudos from the GOP base, and might be good cause for Palin, who's remained lukewarm toward Romney thus far, to rally Christian conservatives behind him. But that's not likely to help Romney much with the secular suburban independents that Romney needs to win over in the fall. In fact, if Palin becomes too vocal and visible, her role could prove counter-productive.

Of course, there are other ways to explain Romney's interest in Ayotte. She endorsed his candidacy early, and he owes her the courtesy of serious consideration. Moreover, Ayotte's already Romney's highest profile female surrogate, and talking her up and keeping her close to the top of the campaign makes Romney look female-friendly, much a his recent campaign ads featuring female faces and voices do. In other words, he can score political points with female voters without having to incur additional risk.

But in the end, Ayotte should not be underestimated. She was previously New Hampshire's Attorney General and even argued an abortion funding case - largely unsuccessfully - before the US Supreme Court. She also co-owns a small business with her husband, Joseph Daley, who just so happens to be an Iraqi war veteran. Moreover, Ayotte is already a highly visible member of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, and has periodically emerged to take swipes at Obama's foreign policy. Unlike Palin, this is a woman who knows and studies policy issues and won't simply crumble in the face of withering fire.

Some would argue that if Romney really wants to use a VP pick to try to capture a swing state, or a neglected constituency, he would be better off picking a candidate like Ohio senator Rob Portman or Florida senator Marco Rubio. But for all the fanfare that has surrounded both men, neither seems to have much pull in his respective state beyond GOP voters. In fact, Rubio might actually hurt Romney, even in his home state, and Portman, despite having helped Romney win the Ohio GOP primary, can't seem to deliver independents, according to recent polls.

Ayotte's not the only VP prospect currently under the microscope. So are former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. Pawlenty, in particular, seems to have a gift for defending the policies of the man whose health care reform he once so caustically denounced. There's also South Dakota senator John Thune, a hero in GOP circles since he defeated the Democrats' former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle in 2004.

But the fact is, none of these men hail from states that are currently "in play." Normally that might not be the main consideration in selecting a VP, but in 2012, with a normally advantaged incumbent seemingly on the ropes, every electoral vote counts. Which is why Team Romney, against all odds, may decide to gamble that a plucky and accomplished neophyte is the perfect dash of unassuming small town Republicanism and forward looking hope that can turn New Hampshire into a coveted GOP prize - and seal the deal for their candidate.