The 2012 Republican "Veep-Stakes" are barely underway, and already two schools of thought are emerging on the wisdom of nominating Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as Mitt Romney's running mate.
The dominant view, advanced by conservative pundits, including, most recently, Charles Krauthammer, is that Rubio is just what the party -- and Romney -- needs both to electrify the base, especially Tea Partiers, and to give the GOP a stronger shot at capturing Latinos.
Latinos will figure prominently in the fall in a handful Southwestern swing states as well as in Florida, where Rubio captured 57 percent of the state's Latino vote en route to his commanding election victory 18 months ago. If he gets the nod, Rubio would be the first Latino VP candidate in history, and some conservatives think, not without reason, that the party needs to make a bold statement to the fastest-growing voter bloc (which traditionally leans Democratic ) if it expects to surpass the paltry 31 percent that John McCain received in 2008.
The evidence that Rubio is strongly in the running for the VP slot is overwhelming. He recently campaigned with Romney in Pennsylvania, just as two other VP prospects, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Rep. Paul Ryan, did earlier in the campaign, in two other states. That's as close to a formal VP "try-out" as one tends to get, but it allows a future nominee and his campaign a chance to see what the prospective ticket might look like in public, and to identify potential problems.
Rubio also just delivered a "major" foreign policy address at the Brookings Institution policy in which he positioned himself as a neoconservative -- just as Romney has. Unlike the Tea Partiers who tend to champion Rubio, he's unlikely to call for deep defense cuts, or to forswear future Libyan interventions on the grounds that the nation is over-extended and has no business serving as the world's policeman. He's also perfectly willing -- and shrewd enough -- to extol the national security wisdom of Joe Lieberman and other conservative Democrats, as he did at Brookings, in an attempt to broaden his appeal.
Romney, who has no foreign policy experience of his own, needs someone at his side who can speak with some real world experience about security questions. And Rubio, though still a freshman, and out of the limelight, has already built up more of a foreign policy record than meets the eye -- having reached across the aisle to co-sponsor significant legislation with the likes of Lieberman, or with his fellow Cuban American, New Jersey Democrat Bob Martinez. At the behest of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who's been anxious to woo Rubio away from Jim DeMint's Tea party caucus, Rubio's also taken a couple of trips abroad to visit the troops and to meet with foreign leaders. In other words, his audition for the VP slot has long been underway.
And then, of course, there's the immigration issue. In recent weeks, Rubio has stepped up and offered a Republican compromise on the DREAM Act, originally a bipartisan bill that would legalize some two million undocumented immigrants, mostly Latinos, who migrated illegally with their parents while still minors. As the prospects for passing more comprehensive immigration reform have faded, Democrats have rallied around the DREAM Act as an alternative. Rubio has proposed letting the former youth stay, without granting them automatic permanent residency, let alone citizenship. His initiative has the potential to embarrass the Democrats, who have scored big points with Latinos in recent years by portraying the GOP as hostile to their aspirations. Rubio's approach -- which has already led to semi-secret talks with leading Democrats -- could be just the fig leaf that the Republicans (and especially Romney, a real hawk on immigration) -- need to woo Latinos without alienating their conservative base.
But does all this add up to Rubio getting the nod? Not necessarily. In fact, the emerging view, most recently articulated by former vice president Dick Cheney, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, and 2004 Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd is that the GOP must avoid the temptation to pick a conservative -- and still largely unvetted -- "rock star" like Rubio as VP, as the party did in 2008 when John McCain selected Sarah Palin, simply to pander to a specific constituency.
Cheney, in a recent forum, reminded the party that these days the most important qualification of a VP candidate is to be able to fill the Chief Executive's shoes in the event of a succession crisis. He specifically criticized the tendency of some "in the media" to think that choosing a woman or a Hispanic could compensate for a presidential nominee's own perceived weaknesses with these same constituencies. Dowd, on a talk show last Sunday, made the same point, adding that VP nominees rarely deliver specific constituencies or a key state, as Texan Lyndon Johnson managed to do for John F. Kenedy in 1960.
And that's why much of the behind-the-scenes talk in GOP circles is increasingly on other prospects, most notably Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels. There is even some speculation that former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who briefly considered a presidential bid, could also get the nod. Bush has strong name recognition nationally with Latinos thanks, in part, to his brother's steadfast efforts to pass immigration reform, and to his own support for Latinos in Florida during his two-terms in office. In addition, Bush's wife is Mexican and he speaks fluent Spanish. He is staunchly pro-life but a relative moderate by today's Republican standards, and at least one recent poll suggests that a Romney-Bush ticket could be a winner.