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Vetting a running mate in a post-Palin world

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WASHINGTON » Let’s say you’re moving steadily toward wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination and you allow yourself to begin thinking ahead to the question of a running mate.

Your party has a potentially devastating problem with Hispanic voters, so your thoughts naturally drift in that direction. After the contraception wars, it wouldn’t hurt to have a woman at your side. It would be nice if you could have an ambassador to the Tea Party movement to help shore up your credentials with the right. And of course, it’s always helpful to chose someone from a swing state.

In any other year, your musings might lead you to, say, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, a former prosecutor who checks all of those boxes, has bipartisan support in her home state and enjoys shooting handguns, to boot.

But in the world after Sarah Palin and "Game Change," the chances of Mitt Romney or anyone else choosing a first-term governor lacking a national brand name and experience are greatly diminished. However good a fit she might be on paper, Martinez probably bears too many surface similarities to Palin to get a serious look, as The New Republic and others have pointed out.

And the fallout from the McCain campaign’s selection of Palin for the No. 2 place on the ticket in 2008 will extend well beyond the chances of any individual. For any Republican who makes it onto the short list of possible vice presidential nominees, the vetting process this year promises to be as thorough and intrusive as the vetting of Palin was rushed and incomplete.

If presidential campaigns are MRIs for the soul, as David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s political strategist, likes to say, vice presidential vetting this year will be a body-cavity search.

"They should expect a complete breach of privacy," said Michael S. Berman, a long-time aide to Walter F. Mondale who helped vet Geraldine A. Ferraro as Mondale’s running mate in 1984.

The McCain campaign’s handling of the Palin selection was hardly the first botched vetting. George S. McGovern only belatedly learned in 1972 that his first choice of running mate, Thomas F. Eagleton, was taking antipsychotic drugs and had undergone electroshock therapy. The background check into Ferraro did not extend deeply enough into her husband, John Zaccaro, whose finances and business practices quickly became political problems for Mondale. In 2004, John Edwards turned out to be an uncooperative running mate for Sen. John Kerry (though Edwards did not descend into scandal until after the campaign).

Even when vetting has not been the issue, the selection process has often been irregular: Dick Cheney ending up as George W. Bush’s choice in 2000 after running the search himself, or Ronald Reagan flirting with putting former President Gerald R. Ford on the ticket with him in 1980.

But in Republican circles, there is a clear focus on avoiding the problems that marked the Palin selection: A rushed process failed to ask basic questions about the prospective running mate, and put short-term electoral concerns ahead of readiness to assume the presidency.

"One of the mistakes we made in the Palin process was one of assumptions," said Steve Schmidt, one of the McCain aides who guided the process. "We immediately made the assumption that anyone with ‘governor’ next to her name has a base level of knowledge of history and policy that in a post-Palin world it isn’t necessarily safe to assume."

Schmidt said that this time around the nominee and his team would need to start the search and vetting much earlier and ask more probing questions intended to gauge the ability of the possible choices to think on their feet, master complex information and provide assurance they could handle the presidency if it came to that. And, he said, the nominee will face pressure to manage a much more rigorous process to prove to the media that the vetting has been thorough.

"What level of rigor is going to be applied to this?" Schmidt said. "Is the media going to demand, for example, to know who is running the vetting process? What is the criteria for the vetting process? How is the decision going to be made? How transparent will the process be?"

Romney has said little of substance about possible choices or how he would make the decision.

"I imagine it will be very private if I’m fortunate enough to have that opportunity," he said in a recent interview with the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. "And we have not even begun such a process, as you can imagine. You know, we’re a long way from that moment. But it would be a private process, and anticipating your next question as to who would make, be on my — I’ll tell you, I have no idea."

Some of the more high-profile possibilities are already under media and partisan scrutiny. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, perhaps the most frequently mentioned potential running mate for the eventual Republican nominee, has already seen his accounts of his family history questioned and has moved up the schedule for publishing his autobiography in an effort to maintain control over his own story line heading into the summer.

Even Republicans with higher national profiles, including Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, would no doubt be subjected to intensive private vetting and very public media X-rays — a prospect that seemed to weigh on both of them as they chose not to make presidential runs.

No vice presidential search process can match the sheer sustained intensity of a two-year presidential campaign when it comes to the scrutiny given to candidates. But the combination of post-Palin pressures, the high stakes of the general election and the pervasiveness of the political media are likely to set a new standard for running mate vetting this time around. And even that will probably not be enough to avoid some surprises.

"You don’t find everything," Berman said. "The only question is, of what consequence is that which you don’t know."

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