WASHINGTON--For those in political circles, the next three months will be consumed by speculation about Mitt Romney's running mate. Early favorites include Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin. Many more names will be floated -- some will be serious contenders, others not -- before the pick is announced.
Far less attention will get paid to the vital, somewhat shadowy, process of protecting Romney from choosing someone who cannot withstand the white-hot scrutiny of a presidential campaign. A longtime Republican insider who has been a central figure in vetting numerous VP candidates has just written an eye-opening description in the Wall Street Journal of the process Romney is likely to follow.
"They will be asked for their agreement to join him on the GOP ticket if chosen, and in the meantime, to submit to a most intrusive and far-reaching vetting by lawyers and advisers working for the campaign," writes A.B. Culvahouse, a lawyer in the Washington office of Los Angeles-based O'Melveny & Myers. "No other candidate, not even the presidential nominee himself, is subjected to the same scrutiny."
"For the 'vettees,' the process can appear ad hoc, opaque and at times capricious (and) without precedent in their political experience," he added.
Already, trusted Romney aides have probably embarked on the first phase: a secret investigation, using "public databases, media archives, political blogs and other sources," to determine whether a potential pick is qualified for the short list. (Culvahouse doesn't mention other factors that can come into play, such as personal chemistry with Romney and the potential effect on his chances for winning key states).
Those who make the initial cut must turn over "tax returns, medical histories, financial statements, court records and anything else labeled 'private and confidential,' while also answering the most probing questions about themselves, their spouses, their children and their extended family -- questions I would not dream of posing in any other context," said Culvahouse, who served as White House counsel under President Ronald Reagan.
Over the last half-century, the investigation of potential running mates has become increasingly complex and professionalized. In large part, it reflects the dire consequences for any campaign that fails to fully vet a running mate. In 1972, Thomas Eagleton was forced off George McGovern's ticket after undisclosed shock therapy treatment was revealed. In 1988, a media firestorm engulfed George H.W. Bush's campaign, which had failed to anticipate questions about Dan Quayle's military service.
Back in 1976, Gerald Ford put 16 questions on his campaign's VP questionnaire. By 2008, John McCain "had almost 80, with multiple subparts. "We asked about infidelity, sexual harassment, discrimination, plagiarism, alcohol or drug addiction, delinquent taxes, credit history, and use of government positions or resources for personal benefit. Nothing was off-limits," Culvahouse said.
After interviewing Sarah Palin, a late-starting contender whose vetting was "no less rigorous, just compressed," Culvahouse said he advised McCain that "because her duties had never encompassed foreign policy or defense issues, Gov. Palin would not be ready to be vice president on Jan. 20, 2009 -- but that I believed she had the presence and wherewithal to grow into the position. I summed up her selection as 'high risk, high reward.' I stand by that advice."
Culvahouse added that every person on McCain's short list (he doesn't identify them but they reportedly included Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist) was asked in a face-to-face interview: "Why do you want to be vice president?"
"The question hardly was a surprise," he said, "but after the scripted answer was finished, every potential nominee began to speak from the heart about honor, service and obligation, on occasion with moist eyes. Their successors on the short list this election cycle deserve our respect in the same measure as they will receive our scrutiny."
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