In late 1975, Los Angeles Times political reporter Bob Shogan found himself sitting next to then-Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee. He was on a flight to Florida to cover the primary pitting President Ford against former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. The results would help determine which man would carry the GOP banner into the 1976 presidential election. Mr. Baker would campaign for Ford but stay with a rabid Reaganite — his mother-in-law, the widow of Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen.
Mr. Shogan would be reporting on the contest, so the two began talking politics. The conversation was “off the record,” so the always-honest Mr. Baker opened up, answering Mr. Shogan’s questions directly and candidly.
The topic of the vice presidency came up. Ford was dumping Nelson Rockefeller, and if he won, Reagan also would have an open No. 2 slot to fill. Mr. Shogan asked Mr. Baker if he would like to be chosen. “In the worst way,” the senator responded. Mr. Shogan asked the natural follow-up: “By whom?” “It doesn’t matter,” Mr. Baker replied.
It was an honest answer from an honest man. The dirty little secret of American politics is that while everyone denigrates the importance of the office, almost any politician with an eye to the future would take it if asked, and most would love to figure out just how to get asked.
This year, as Mitt Romney ponders his options, potential vice-presidential candidates and their boosters are trying to demonstrate their attractiveness without appearing to be lusting after the job. Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty and Rob Portman, along with Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice and others are frantically flying from state to state, campaigning for Mr. Romney while denying more than a mild interest in the job.
They all say they’re happy in their present jobs, but most suggest that if their country calls they would answer. Some appear more reluctant than others. Marco Rubio and Miss Rice claim no interest, but others, like Mr. Christie and Mr. Ryan, have hedged or suggested that they might be available if Mr. Romney thinks they could help.
Others promoting long-shot potential candidates, such as Gen. David H. Petraeus, who aren’t in a position to do much themselves are independently making the case for their favorites.
This is the usual dance that precedes the announcement of the vice-presidential pick, with columnists, political professionals and analysts giving odds, talking up their favorites and making guesses that usually end up wrong. They all are operating in the dark because if Mr. Romney already has made up his mind, it’s a safe bet he hasn’t shared his decision with anyone other than his wife.
Good arguments can be made for a number of the potential picks. Mr. Rubio is from Florida and is young, Hispanic and exciting. Mr. Portman is from Ohio, is conservative and knows Washington. Mr. Ryan knows economics and the budget better than anyone in the party in a year when such knowledge could prove crucial. Mr. Pawlenty is an indefatigable campaigner and a nice guy with a record of appealing to moderates as well as conservatives. Mr. Jindal is young, ethnic and a tremendous governor. Miss Rice is female, able and internationally respected.
From a conservative perspective, the only potential pick that makes little sense is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Mr. Christie has become something of a Republican quasi-populist hero by bombastically taking on those critical of his policies and working to pull his state back from the fiscal abyss it faced when he was elected in 2009. He’s entertaining and attractively feisty but not conservative, and one suspects his bombastic manner could make him a pick who wouldn’t wear well over the long haul.
Conservatives would wonder about Mr. Romney picking another northeastern governor, plus one who has nothing but disdain for the Tea Party, has alienated conservatives on almost every social issue and continues to infuriate Second Amendment supporters in his own state and nationally.
Mr. Christie has been trying to soften his position on guns by arguing that while he supports strict gun-control measures in New Jersey, he thinks the degree of control each state imposes should be determined by the state itself rather than by Congress or the federal courts.
This sounds good, but the fact is that Mr. Christie began his electoral career by running for the General Assembly in 1995 as a supporter of the Clinton assault-weapons ban and criticized his opponents who wanted to end the ban as “crazies.” As a candidate for governor, he did say he opposed the one-gun-a-month limit on firearms purchases adopted in New Jersey, but he later declined to support its repeal.
New Jersey has some of the most onerous and confusing anti-gun legislation in the country, but Mr. Christie steadfastly refuses to consider any reforms and will not even meet with Second Amendment supporters to discuss it. He is among the most anti-gun governors of either party, insisting that his “common-sense” policies are designed to “make sure we do not have an abundance of guns in New Jersey.”
Mr. Christie also has been a strong advocate of the global-warming theory and has attacked those who favor stricter immigration enforcement, stating flatly that “being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime.” He has not endeared himself to social conservatives, either, as he tries to stake out middle ground.