A certain cynicism attaches to presidential candidates' selection of running mates. In theory, a running mate is someone who would do a good job leading the country if the president died or were removed from office.
But the theory doesn't account for Joseph Robinette "Joe" Biden Jr., George Herbert Walker Bush nor, certainly, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Were they really the best that Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, respectively, could do for the country? And let us not long ponder the off-putting possibilities if Al Gore ever had become commander in chief. (Dolphin-friendly aircraft carriers, anyone?)
No, the people who would be vice president are selected not primarily for whether they would provide steady, competent leadership but for what strategic edge they might bring in the general election.
Which brings us to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is expected to be the Republican nominee this year, and his potential running mates.
Some have hinted that they are interested. Others seem dead set against the idea. But until the decision is announced, we just don't know who it will be.
So here is a brief look, in no particular order, at a handful of the more prominent names that are proffered now and again:
• Marco Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida. The importance of Rubio's status as the son of Cuban immigrants cannot be overstated in swing-state Florida. It is possible that Gore lost to George W. Bush because the Clinton administration, in which Gore served, forcibly returned young Elian Gonzalez to communist Cuba. That enraged Florida's large Cuban-American community, whose fears about Gonzalez's nauseating use as a political pawn in Castro's Cuba proved well founded. Bush's Florida victory sealed his win. Politically, Rubio is generally a conservative, though he is a bit soft on illegal immigration.
• New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Christie gets well-deserved praise for being plainspoken, particularly about the fiscal train wreck toward which our nation is rushing because of our failure to reform entitlement programs and make them sustainable. He is undoubtedly an economic conservative, judging from his hardnosed budgeting in New Jersey. His credentials as a social conservative are somewhat less certain, though, with his views on abortion being at best hazy.
• Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty's own presidential bid failed to energize voters, but he's knowledgeable on policy and might be able to help Romney win Minnesota in November. Or not. Romney didn't win Minnesota's Republican caucuses despite Pawlenty's strong endorsement.
• Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Working on a shoestring budget, Santorum nonetheless gave Romney a real run for his (far more ample) money this year on the Republican side. He is plainly more socially conservative than Romney, and so he might be able to motivate conservative voters to turn out for Romney in the general election. He is also an appropriately fierce and articulate voice against ObamaCare and the threat to freedom that it poses to the United States.
• Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich has one thing in ample supply that is lacking among most of the other people whose names have been mentioned as possible running mates for Romney: He can make mincemeat of virtually any foe in a debate. It is not exaggerating to say that he would mop the floor with the not especially well-spoken Biden, then apply a scalding layer of wax. Gingrich is also generally conservative and has a tremendous grasp of history and America's unique role in it. But it is beyond doubt that the Democrats would use his well-documented family problems against him.
• Fiscal (and typically social) conservatives such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and a number of other figures are among the many would-be VP candidates whose names are bandied about, as well.
Romney will have to balance his desire to select someone from a strategically important swing state with his urgent need to pick someone who will reassure conservatives that he shares their values on the most fundamental issues. Ideally, of course, he would find someone who can meet both of those criteria.
And that will matter the day we live in an ideal world. Meanwhile, back in the real world, Romney will have to do some political calculations and assessments that might make viewing sausage production seem appealing by comparison.