Who Else for Vice President but Marco Rubio?

by Stuart Rothenberg March 21, 2012 · 10:00 AM EDT

No, the fight for the Republican presidential nomination is not yet over. But if and when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney becomes his party’s standard-bearer, he’ll need to look for the right running mate to help him unify the party and breathe some excitement into the Republican ticket. In other words, he’ll need Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Rubio, of course, isn’t the only Republican who could enhance a Romney ticket. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell have some of the right political credentials, and each would be an asset to a Romney ticket in a number of important ways. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum probably has earned consideration because of his presidential run. Two female governors, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez and South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, are sure to receive some mention.

Of that group, however, Rubio, Jindal and McDonnell clearly stand out.

Jindal, an East Indian, is young, smart and accomplished. A favorite of conservatives, he initially endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry before Perry’s exit from the presidential race. Jindal is in his second term as governor after serving in state government (as secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals) and, very briefly, in Congress.

Jindal, 40, has a background in health care and public policy (he was accepted by Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School but instead became a Rhodes scholar at Oxford), and the Louisianan can be a political wonk. But he’s also personable and, more importantly, perhaps, Jindal doesn’t look like most Republicans, an asset particularly given Romney’s look and, even more obviously, the president’s.

Like Jindal, McDonnell comes from a Southern state and should appeal to the party’s conservative base. But Virginia is a swing state, unlike Louisiana, which gives the popular McDonnell some extra appeal as a running mate. Like Jindal, McDonnell isn’t a creature of Washington, D.C., or the federal government.

More importantly, McDonnell, 57, is a “happy conservative,” a considerable asset given the angry sourpusses on the right who spend most of their time blaming Democrats or RINOs (Republicans in name only) for the country’s troubles. The governor rarely demonizes opponents, and his tone and rhetoric convey a sense of civility, not confrontation.

Though he is a Catholic, he holds a law degree from televangelist Pat Robertson’s Regent University and has been supported by his state’s evangelicals. On the downside, of course, he looks like a clone of Romney.

But while both men have plenty going for them, Rubio simply looks like a better fit.

Rubio, who will turn 41 at the end of May, served as city commissioner of West Miami before winning election to the Florida House of Representatives in 2000. In 2006, he was elected Florida Speaker.

Although Rubio is not inherently a tea party Republican, his race against Gov. Charlie Crist for Florida’s GOP Senate nomination in 2010 became a cause célèbre for the tea party and movement conservatives. Running against Crist and the governor’s establishment support, Rubio easily won a three-way race after Crist bolted the GOP to run for Senate as an Independent.

Rubio’s selection would energize conservatives the way former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s did four years ago — though without the downside the inexperienced former Alaska governor had when she was plucked from obscurity.

Rubio’s Cuban heritage is a potentially huge asset, giving him particular appeal in key states with substantial Hispanic populations, including Florida, New Mexico and Nevada. More importantly, his ethnicity presents a more than subtle message that his party isn’t just a bunch of older white men.

If you have heard Rubio talk, you know that he can be eloquent.

Instead of ranting about President Barack Obama’s mistakes or agenda or spending most of his time demonizing Democrats, Rubio often presents an optimistic vision of America, telling his own immigrant family story.

His story of America as a land of opportunity certainly touches a nerve with free-market, anti-Washington conservatives, but it has potentially much greater reach, including to voters who are not ordinarily attracted to the GOP. For example, while Rubio generally adopts the Republican line on issues that have strained the party’s relations with Hispanics, he offers a much more welcoming message to Hispanics. He complains that Republicans don’t talk nearly enough about their commitment to legal immigration, and he approaches immigration issues with a much more sympathetic tone.

Rubio, like any politician, would have to defend himself from criticism.

He would once again have to deal with questions about his use of a Republican Party of Florida credit card, and critics have raised questions about whether he has mischaracterized his parents’ exit from Cuba. Even admirers of the Senator note that he has been quiet as a freshman and will have to demonstrate that he has the “heft” to be the man who will run the country if anything happens to the president.

Rubio has been a national figure for only two years, after all, and though he received plenty of attention and scrutiny in his Senate race, it is nothing like what he will attract as a running mate.

Would Rubio take the slot if it were offered to him? I don’t see why not.

It isn’t easy to turn down your party’s nominee for president when he asks you to join the ticket. And even if the ticket loses in November, Rubio would be “next in line for the Republican nomination,” always a valuable spot. He’d have a leg up on Jindal, McDonnell and the long list of Republicans — frankly, a more talented crop than this year’s — expected to contest for an open seat in 2016.