What's really driving veep buzz about Condoleezza Rice?

Condoleezza Rice probably won't be Mitt Romney's running mate. But all the speculation highlights just how starved this campaign is for excitement.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
In this April 17 file photo, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks at Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss. Vice-presidential speculation exploded Thursday with a story saying that the former secretary of State had emerged as a 'front-runner' to become Mitt Romney’s running mate.

Could it be Condi? Don’t hold your breath.

We’re referring to the vice-presidential speculation that exploded Thursday, with a story on the Drudge Report saying that the former secretary of State had emerged as a “front-runner” to become Mitt Romney’s running mate.

The buzz got an immediate boost from a variety of other voices on the right, with everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin to House majority leader Eric Cantor offering up approval.

It all strikes us, however, as a red herring.

True, Mr. Romney is probably getting close to making a decision on his No. 2 (if he hasn’t already). But if the campaign is hoping to get a significant bump in the polls after announcing the pick, a crucial component will be the element of surprise. Floating a trial balloon by leaking Condoleezza Rice’s name to Drudge would undermine that.

Then there are all the strikes against her:

1. She’s in favor of abortion rights. Given the lack of trust that many social conservatives have for Romney – whose position on abortion has, as he puts it, “evolved” over the years – it’s been widely assumed that he will choose a running mate with a strong antiabortion record, to reassure the base. (Interestingly, though, Ms. Palin seemed to indicate some flexibility on that point Thursday night, noting that while she’d prefer candidates be antiabortion, “it’s not the vice president that would legislate abortion ... that would be Congress’s role.”)

2. She’s too closely associated with the Bush years. George W. Bush left office with a 34 percent approval rating and a 61 percent disapproval rating – and Ms. Rice’s role in many of the most controversial elements of his presidency, like the Iraq war, would be revived and probed all over again.

3. She’s not a politician. We know, Rice gave an electrifying speech at Romney’s donor retreat in Utah last month, firing up the crowd and giving rise to all the vice-presidential rumors that are now in overdrive. But she has never run for elective office, and she still strikes us as extremely private and even somewhat shy. It’s hard to picture her out on the campaign trail, giving stump speeches and working the rope line, or being willing to endure the kind of intense media scrutiny that goes with the territory. And of course, she has said repeatedly that she’s not interested (and yes, everyone says that – but in this case, we believe her).

Given all that, it seems to us that the Romney folks were really just looking for a splashy way to change the subject Thursday, away from the downward-sucking spiral that has become Romney’s record at Bain, what year he actually “retired,” what’s in his tax returns, offshore bank accounts, etc., etc.

But if leaking Rice’s name to Drudge was mostly an effort to turn the page, it could have unintended consequences. Specifically, we’re now wondering if the chatter – and evident enthusiasm – about Rice has gone beyond what the Romney campaign anticipated, to the point where it could make his eventual choice seem less exciting by comparison.

Of all the vice-presidential contenders being discussed, Rice clearly leads the pack in both star power and intellectual heft. And it’s awfully intriguing to imagine the impact of putting a black woman on the GOP ticket. At the moment, the electorate seems even more divided by race than in 2008: President Obama is polling at new lows among white men, while retaining or even increasing his support among minorities. If Romney could steal even a small percentage of minority votes away from the president, it could change the whole electoral map.

In a way, the jolt created by the Rice speculation has underscored one of the biggest problems for Romney. He is widely perceived as uninspiring and, well, dull – even by Republicans. Qualified, efficient, pragmatic, sure. But dull.

Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan recounted in her Wall Street Journal column Thursday that when she mentioned Rice as a possibly “brilliant choice” for VP to a crowd of business people recently, “spontaneous applause” erupted. As Ms. Noonan put it, the crowd seemed suddenly energized by the notion that this campaign could get exciting, after all. 

That doesn’t mean picking Rice is the answer for Romney. But it raises new questions about the wisdom of putting a proverbial "boring white guy" on the ticket. Romney doesn't have many options left for injecting genuine excitement into his campaign. And he could use some. 

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