- - Tuesday, July 17, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If Mitt Romney understands that the outcome of the presidential election likely will hinge on several swing states in the industrial Midwest that abound with Reagan Democrats, then his vice presidential search — if accurately reflected in the media — has been somewhat mystifying.

It’s not that the names bandied about for weeks as being under consideration for the No. 2 spot on his ticket — folks like Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio or Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin— aren’t smart, qualified and substantive.

It’s just that they would add virtually nothing to the rather limited resonance that Mr. Romney has with blue-collar conservatives who are so important in key industrial states.

Adding economic knowledge and budgetary competence to the GOP ticket would raise an obvious question: Doesn’t the former CEO think he already has those areas covered?

What he lacks is street credibility to many average folks, chief among them the aforementioned Reagan Democrats who abound in pivotal Rust Belt states. They view him as a rich guy who inhabits a different world than they do and who moreover appears squishy on values issues. This combination hardly offers the potential for the crossover appeal to these voters that paid off so handsomely for the past two Republican two-term presidents — Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

These conservative working-class voters, not a few of whom are members of labor unions and who lean Democratic on economic issues but Republican on values and patriotism -— are going to be critical in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Many of them would be susceptible to a GOP appeal this time because they are hardly enamored with President Obama. They may have been persuaded by their union or their friends or the poor economy to support Mr. Obama last time, but now it’s his poor economy, with an unacceptably high unemployment rate.

When Mr. Romney recently tried to enliven the vice presidential process, perhaps conscious that many of the names being floated weren’t generating much enthusiasm, the rumors flew that he was considering Condoleezza Rice. She would be a great choice — from the Obama administration’s perspective. Ms. Rice would have scant appeal to these key voters, and it would take the Obama team about three minutes to begin compiling and circulating this national security expert’s voluminous missteps and misstatements vis-a-vis the Iraq War.

If Mr. Romney wants to expand his appeal to include large and definable groups of voters who could help deliver some electorally key states, he has some options.

High on the list should be Tim Pawlenty, the former two-term governor of Minnesota, no easy state for a Republican to win. The son of a truck driver, Mr. Pawlenty long has labored energetically to expand the GOP reach to include what he dubs “Sam’s Club working people,” while warning Republicans not to be the party of the country club set. Beyond appealing to some working people, he also could humanize what otherwise risks being a rather business-oriented ticket.

Media reports this week suggest that Mr. Romney indeed is considering Mr. Pawlenty. If he is tapped, the former Minnesota governor and current Romney surrogate might be well-advised to tone down his blasting of public employees. His choices would be to sound more and more like a Romney clone on labor or to expand the ticket’s appeal.

Other Republicans who could appeal to these voters — though are far less likely to be selected for the No. 2 spot — include Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin.

Why should attracting these workers be such a priority for Republicans? The last time Republicans unseated an incumbent Democratic president was 1980, when Mr. Reagan gained the votes of millions of blue-collar conservatives/Reagan Democrats. If Mr. Romney hopes to win, he needs to make similar inroads in November.

Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.