Ohio Sen. Rob Portman also is near the top of many speculative lists of potential running mates. Portman endorsed Romney early and campaigned hard for him in his home state. Romney, who won Ohio by a slim margin, knows Portman and is said to respect him. The Ohio senator also is unlikely to spring any surprises on the Romney campaign. He's been confirmed to two Cabinet posts — he served as U.S. trade representative under President George H.W. Bush and then as Bush's director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Romney also is likely to consider conservative favorites talked about often, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Still, if he's looking for experience, that group has just five years of gubernatorial experience among the three.
More experienced Republicans also are likely to be in the mix, and they could help Romney mitigate some political liabilities. Chief among those vulnerabilities is his wealth of as much as $250 million and his struggle to connect with working-class voters.
Former two-term Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty comes from a working-class background that could help. He's been aggressively campaigning on Romney's behalf since suspending his presidential campaign last year.
GOP budget guru Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also came from humble beginnings. Ryan campaigned at Romney's side for several days ahead of Wisconsin's recent Republican primary, a victory that helped push Rick Santorum out of the race. It's unclear whether Ryan's role as face of the Congressional Republican budget plan, which includes a fundamental transformation of Medicare, would present too much political risk.
Over the coming months, the only thing that's certain in an otherwise uncertain process is that Palin's shadow — and the troubles of 2008 — will be looming large.
"There's one thing the people in the Republican establishment agree on: There was clearly not a thorough thought process or vetting that went into the vetting of Sarah Palin. They didn't ask the fundamental questions or spend enough time with her," said Sara Fagen, a former political director for President George W. Bush. "I don't think they're going to make the same mistake."
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