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Capitol Hill Turns to Speculation on GOP Vice Presidential Nominee

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House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (right) is seen as a strong contender to join presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney as his running mate.

The “veepstakes” have hit Capitol Hill, and staffers to the top-tier contenders for the GOP nominee’s vice presidential nod are working to promote and protect their bosses during the selection process.

With former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney solidifying his frontrunner status for the presidential nod, about a half-dozen Members who have been mentioned as potential running mates are playing coy, as are their staffs. But aides and supporters of those believed to be on the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s short list acknowledged in interviews with Roll Call that they are preparing to deal with months of speculation. Republican sources expect staff to advocate quietly for their boss — both to GOP insiders and the media, in some cases planting stories as a way of self-vetting.  

“I think it could get competitive among the staffs,” said a Republican strategist who is unaffiliated with the contenders. “The Members themselves know it would be bad form to engage in over-positioning. But staffs are definitely aware of what each Member is doing. ... There is jockeying — no question about it.”

Members of Congress at this point make up a high percentage of those considered among the top choices Romney might consider for his vice presidential nominee, but a handful of governors also are on that list. Leading the list of Capitol Hill players is freshman Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who some GOP insiders believe is a lock for the job if he wants it and can survive the vetting process.

Also receiving top-tier mention are House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.), who campaigned with Romney in the Badger State leading up to the April 3 primary; Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.), who considered running for president this year; and freshman Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), a veteran of the House and the George W. Bush administration. Additional names garnering attention include freshman Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.).

No one connected to the vice presidential prospects acknowledged having a plan to promote their boss for vice president, saying either that the Member doesn’t want the job or suggesting that they realize it would do more harm than good. These operatives also said that no staff-driven rivalries have emerged.

But GOP operatives said they will be aggressive in protecting Members they advise from inaccurate stories about their record and viability on a national ticket. These operatives said their aim is to shoot down any narrative that suggests a prospective vice presidential nominee was passed over because of information discovered during the vetting process.

“The biggest things we’re focused on is ensuring that incorrect perceptions that some might have don’t set in as conventional wisdom,” said one GOP operative who advises a lawmaker who is oft-mentioned as a potential running mate. “Our concern is the next Senate election, not the next six months. ... This has nothing do with the VP speculation.”

No Republican with direct knowledge of the Members involved would speak on the record, citing the sensitivity of the topic.

Romney still has not won the 1,144 Republican convention delegates required to seal up the nomination and force former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) and ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) from the race. But following a sweep of primaries last Tuesday in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin, Romney has solidified his status as the presumptive GOP nominee.

Not all Member staffs are considered equally politically savvy and prepared to handle the glare of the national media spotlight should their boss remain in contention for the No. 2 spot into the summer. One way to gauge Ryan’s interest in being selected — and perhaps Romney’s interest — could be whether the Congressman hires more experienced political advisers. One Republican insider described Ryan’s staff as “not political at all.”

“Ryan’s real dream is to be Ways and Means chairman,” one GOP operative said. “That being said, we all know he’ll be on any short list, and if it goes further, he would definitely have to add to his team. [But] that’s not unusual.”

Conversely, Rubio’s national ambitions are well-known, and his team of staff and advisers includes Republican operatives with presidential campaign experience. Many of them have been with the Senator since his 2010 campaign, if not soon after he assumed office in January of last year. Press aide Alex Conant joined Rubio’s Senate office after serving on former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 2012 presidential campaign. Sally Canfield, Rubio’s chief policy adviser and among his first Senate hires, counseled Romney during his 2008 presidential bid.

Although Republican operatives off Capitol Hill believe staff rivalries could emerge as aides connected to Members on Romney’s potential short list angle to favorably position their boss, most GOP Hill staffers downplayed that possibility. While Republican aides generally expect some promotion of the Members under discussion by staff to occur, they don’t expect it to be overt enough to make a newsworthy spectacle.

“I’ve seen none of that at this point. I’d be surprised if it happened. I just think it would be a really stupid thing to do,” one aide said. “It’s the last thing Boston wants to see. ... They’re looking for team players.”

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