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By Jay Cost

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McCain Should Pick Romney, And Soon

As John McCain mulls his veep pick, I'd offer some thoughts on what he should do. As the title indicates, I think Mitt Romney is quite possibly the best choice, and McCain should pick him soon.

Analysts have given multiple reasons for picking Romney over Tim Pawlenty, Rob Portman, Tom Ridge, etc. I think many of these hypothesized benefits are less than compelling:

(1) Romney will energize conservatives. Maybe, but the real question is whether they need energy. All that matters is if they vote, and it looks as though they will. This is an open election, and a consequential one. If the race remains reasonably close, turnout should be high, and conservatives should vote.

(2) Romney will bring Michigan. Do veep candidates really bring states? Color me skeptical. Most recent veep picks have not been chosen to win home states - which should tell us something. Anyway, who's ever heard of a veep bringing his dad's state?

(3) Romney will bring economic credibility. With a few exceptions, qualities or qualifications have not been transferred from veep to the top guy. It's just as possible that, rather than boost McCain's economic bona fides, Romney would underscore the impression that those bona fides are pretty weak.

(4) Romney can raise extra cash. He probably can, but by itself this is not a reason to select him. A veep nominee is more important than an ATM, so Romney has to offer McCain something else. If he can, his fundraising prowess is really just a supplement.

It is generally unreasonable to expect direct benefits from a vice-presidential nominee. Voters do not make their choices based on the second guy or gal. That being said, it is not an inconsequential selection. A good vice-presidential pick will further a candidate's message. While voters do not vote for the top guy because of the veep, they do vote for the top guy because of his message, which the veep can help communicate.

So, McCain should pick the guy who helps his message the most. But what is McCain's message? I think it is: in a year when the country is dissatisfied with his party, he is an acceptable Republican while his opponent is a needlessly risky choice.

Even for the most able candidate, this would be difficult to communicate. It is hard to criticize an opponent without diminishing yourself. Unfortunately for the GOP, McCain is not the "most able candidate." It seems to me that his team has tried to execute this strategy with McCain as chief critic - but it has backfired. McCain seems less acceptable, Obama seems no more risky.

The McCain campaign should not expect this to change if things remain as they are. McCain has lots of political strengths, but attacking another candidate is not one of them. He can't seem to hit Obama. Hillary Clinton couldn't, either. The two of them seem smaller for their efforts.

However McCain has an asset that Hillary simply lacked. He can outsource the attacks, handing the duties over to the veep pick. McCain can go back to being the maverick straight talker while the vice-presidential nominee can go after Obama.

This is why Mitt Romney might make a good veep candidate.

Anybody who followed the primaries closely noted that Romney was a frequent critic of his fellow Republicans. His campaign put him on the attack early and often. I thought this was a bad strategy, and I noted it at the time. That being said, Romney executed this bad strategy very well. He reminded me of a cross between Al Smith and Spiro Agnew. Chris Cilizza recently referred to him as the "smiling assassin." For what they were, his primary attacks were very good.

Picking Romney means putting the McCain campaign's attacks in his mouth. That should make them much more effective. Never in his political career has Obama encountered an opponent who can land a blow as well as Romney. Furthermore, picking Romney will help retain McCain's reputation. If McCain does not have to attack Obama, he can return to being the maverick straight talker.

In other words, a McCain-Romney ticket might be able to do what McCain has so far failed to do by himself. McCain can emphasize how he is an acceptable Republican. Romney can emphasize how Obama is needlessly risky.

Of course, there are reasons not to pick Romney. Some of them are valid, but many are not:

(1) McCain and Romney dislike each other. I don't see why this is a problem. Presidential and vice-presidential candidates need not form a working relationship. All that matters is whether Romney can follow the campaign's plan, which I am sure he can. After they win, McCain can send him off to attend funerals and cut ribbons.

(2) Romney will alienate evangelicals. Maybe, but my feeling is that evangelical voters are going to vote. Again, turnout will be high if the election is close. So if they vote, who will they vote for? Barack Obama? Bob Barr? Ralph Nader? No, no, and no. Evangelicals are usually Republicans, which means we should expect them to vote Republican. Plus, Obama would never touch the "Mormon issue," not even with a ten-foot poll. That will minimize its salience.

(3) Romney will overshadow McCain. I agree that Romney looks more presidential - except for the fact that McCain roundly defeated him in the primaries. That should close any stature gap caused by differences in physical appearance.

(4) Romney wants to be president. This is actually an asset, in my opinion. Romney will have an incentive to work his behind off. If McCain wins, Romney will be the heir apparent. If McCain loses, but Romney gave it his all, he will be well positioned for 2012.

One potentially harmful drawback is his work at Bain Capital. The Democrats will probably try to tar Romney as a job slasher or something to that effect. Given that the unemployment rate is going up, the McCain campaign should be ready for this. Another potential problem is that Romney still polls weak. According to Rasmussen, his net favorable is negative at the moment. If McCain's internal polling indicates that this negativity might rub off on him, that would be a reason not to pick Romney.

Of course, all veep picks have strengths and weaknesses. The choice comes down to what the campaign needs most. As far as personal qualities go, McCain needs very little. The public has a well-formed, positive impression of him. Few politicians ever develop such a reputation. What McCain really needs is somebody who can articulate the negative message. Romney can do that.

If Romney is the correct pick, now might be the correct time.

Selecting Romney now will bring his services immediately. That's a real benefit. The McCain campaign clearly thinks it needs to criticize Obama over the summer. I think it's right. So, the sooner Romney takes over the attacks, the better.

This means McCain wouldn't pick Romney immediately prior to the GOP convention, when veep nominees are typically chosen. Many analysts think this is a reason to wait. I don't.

Picking Romney now might diminish the magnitude of McCain's convention bounce because it will make the GOP gathering less eventful. This should be of little concern in a year like this. This is a very peculiar election for a Republican candidate, and Obama is very different than most opponents. These facts should alter the McCain campaign's strategy.

Obama will probably enjoy a sizeable bounce from his convention. McCain should not fall into the trap of trying to match him. Spoiler alert: he can't. Matching Obama on a stage like that would be like going on after Jerry Lee Lewis in 1957. Only a fool would try to upstage "The Killer."

So, if McCain casts aside the idea of matching Obama bounce-for-bounce, then what? He adopts the mantra of the tortoise: slow and steady wins the race. If Obama gets the bounce we all expect, it will be because he'll do the same thing he's been doing for months: big, splashy images, tens of thousands of adoring fans, and well-delivered, grand-but-vague rhetoric. If it moves Obama's numbers, it likely will not address the underlying concerns about him the electorate still retains. There is probably no speech that can do that. If there were such a speech, Obama would have given it by now.

That gives the McCain campaign its opening. It must articulate the doubts of the voters in a coherent, clear way. To do that, it doesn't need an eye-popping convention or a corresponding bounce. Slow and steady will do well enough. McCain's path would thus be similar to the one Gerald Ford almost walked in 1976. He fosters the doubts about Obama in voters' minds, so that by late October and early November - the undecideds and soft Obama supporters break his way. A big convention bounce for either candidate would be immaterial.

But slow and steady is a better strategy the earlier it begins. That's why I'd put Romney in place now, even if it results in a less momentous convention. I'd get Romney out there today, acting as an effective critic of Obama, offering editorial comment to all of the grand images we're bound to see between now and Denver, giving voice to the doubts voters still seem to have about the Democratic nominee. The idea here is that McCain cedes some of the boost he might otherwise get from his convention in return for laying the groundwork for a late-stage surge.

There might be reasons to wait on announcing Romney, or reasons not to choose him at all, that supercede the considerations outlined here. The McCain campaign has access to polling data and background material that the rest of us simply lack. Who knows what this indicates? It could show that his work at Bain makes him too hard a sell, or that his negative ratings will drag McCain down. And so on.

However, if McCain waits or chooses somebody else, he must do a better job in his critique of Obama. Right now, it is not nearly as good as it needs to be. I think picking Romney now would be a way to improve it immediately. If the McCain campaign wants to save a Romney announcement until St. Paul, or if it thinks it is better served by another pick, it must look for a way to improve its attacks.

-Jay Cost