Memo to Mitt: Marco Rubio Has Nothing on Susana Martinez

Could New Mexico governor Susana Martinez be back in the running as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney? A little-noticed Public Policy poll conducted July 12-15 among registered voters in New Mexico has some national GOP operatives buzzing. The poll found Romney trailing President Obama 49%-44%, with 7% undecided. But when respondents were asked how they felt about a Romney-Martinez pairing against President Obama and Joe Biden, they favored the two tickets equally (45%-45%). That means Martinez might actually help Romney capture a critical swing state in a region rich with Latino voters, which magnifies her potential value.

In fact, New Mexico, with just 5 electoral votes, wasn't even supposed to be competitive this year. Obama captured the state handily in 2008, and most observers say New Mexico is trending strongly "blue," just like neighboring Nevada (6 electoral votes), but in sharp contrast to Arizona (11 electoral votes), which has swung GOP for years. Normally, that makes Colorado (9 electoral votes) the most talked-about Southwestern "battleground." But if Romney wins New Mexico on top of Arizona, he won't necessarily need to carry the Centennial State to blunt Obama's momentum. In a presidential election this close, the unexpected "flip" of a single small Blue state could well prove decisive.

Of course, New Mexico is also critical because such a high percentage of the state's voters are Hispanic - a whopping 39%, the highest in the nation (compared to 16% in Florida, and just 12% in Colorado, for example). And that's another reason why Martinez, the nation's first Latina governor, commands such attention. Unlike another 2012 VP prospect, Florida senator Marco Rubio, Martinez is not a Cuban-American whose appeal might be limited to one smaller sub-population of Hispanics. She's Mexican-American, with roots in Texas, another big Hispanic state, and she looks and talks the part. In 2010, she won 40% of the Hispanic vote, a remarkable result in a state whose last Hispanic governor, Bill Richardson, was a dyed-in-the-wool liberal and where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 5-1.

And Martinez, unlike many US governors, is still extremely popular. In the latest polls, she registers a net favorability rating of 22 points - one of the highest nationwide. How did she accomplish that feat? Through skillful maneuvering, it appears. While Martinez is often depicted as a neophyte, she's already emerging as a formidable politician. With an assist from Sarah Palin's political PAC and the former Alaska governor's own personal endorsement, she came out of nowhere to win the GOP primary then cruised to a 7-point win in the general election. But after her victory, Martinez, a former Democrat, soon declared herself independent of the Palinistas. She strongly supports the Tea Party agenda of lower taxes and smaller government, but she hasn't been as aggressive on social issues like gay marriage and abortion as some would like. In fact, earlier this year, she caused outrage in Christian circles by naming an openly gay man to the state's powerful public regulation board. That defiant streak, perhaps, is one reason independents and Democrats continue to rate her so favorably.

But what really distinguishes Martinez from the Tea Party and from most other Republicans - except for Rubio, perhaps - is her public questioning of the GOP's strategy on immigration. An ex-District Attorney who enjoys widespread support from the state's law enforcement community, Martinez backs expanded border and workplace controls, but she's also pushing her party to abandon its hard line opposition to an "amnesty" program. Some observers believe her pronouncements on this score, which have included indirect criticism of Romney himself, may have already doomed her chances of getting the VP nod. But despite outward signs of tension, Martinez remains one of Romney's top Hispanic advisers. She still helps direct the special campaign team that oversees the candidate's Hispanic advertising and outreach efforts and is credited with having infused Romney's Spanish-language television ads with greater cultural nuance and resonance.

In fact, the closer one looks at Martinez, the more one gets the impression that she could prove useful to Romney well beyond Latinos. She's highly personable, as well as telegenic, and in her public appearances she conveys the kind of warmth and spontaneity that many find lacking in the party's presumptive nominee. She also clearly appeals to women - and not just GOP women. In the recent Public Policy poll, she not only boosts Romney's Latino share of the New Mexico vote from 34% to 39%, she also reduces his "gender gap" from 12 points to zero. Obama only leads by 7 points among women, matching Romney's 7-point lead among men. That's a remarkable shift, and an advantage that no other prospective GOP vice presidential candidate - except perhaps the pro-choice Condoleeza Rice, who's not seriously in the running - can provide. If Martinez could exert a similar impact nationally, she'd be a formidable presence indeed.

The two biggest arguments against Martinez are that she's simply too new and untested nationally and that like Romney himself, she lacks foreign policy experience. Romney apparently hasn't vetted her, formally, but there's clearly strong interest. In January he suggested that he would consider her for a cabinet post, but added that "other positions" were open, too. Those who dismiss her as a "Sarah Palin-type" candidate, as libertarian Gary Johnson just did, are probably missing the point. She has demonstrated crossover appeal - and a policy substance, at least on domestic issues - that Palin clearly lacked.

And for Romney, naming her wouldn't be a last-ditch "Hail Mary" option, as the Palin selection was for McCain. On the contrary, it would reflect his growing confidence in the power of his own candidacy. At the same time, naming the first Hispanic - and only the third woman, two of them Republican - to a national campaign ticket would also send an unmistakable signal to voters that Romney, contrary to Obama campaign propaganda, is looking to the future - not to the past.

Of course, that's exactly the same argument that's being used by those who are promoting Rubio's candidacy. But the fact is, despite his ability to galvanize the GOP base, Rubio doesn't appear to have Martinez's crossover potential, and even in Florida, the evidence suggests that his presence on the ticket might actually hurt Romney more than it helps.

In the end, it could be the raw politics that matters most. Romney's path to victory remains more precarious than Obama's, and as a result, every state counts. If Romney continues to struggle in Ohio, for example, it will magnify the importance of a GOP "breakthrough" in the Southwest. Romney, in fact, has recently narrowed the race in Colorado, a state with an unusually high number of independent voters, and where Martinez could conceivably exert an influence, too.

All of this points up the need for Romney to consider vetting Martinez more seriously for the VP slot. Demographically speaking, she is the quintessential "breakthrough" candidate. And yet, she appears to have unrecognized political value that far too many observers, including many in her own party, are ignoring.