QUAKERTOWN -- Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's tour bus pulled into this Bucks County town on Saturday to drum up support in the voter-rich Philadelphia suburbs and audition potential vice presidential running mates.
"I am considering a number of people for my running mate and carrying out the vetting and the due-diligence process," Romney said in an interview with the Tribune-Review as he ate a meatball hoagie with pickles and sweet peppers from a Wawa, an iconic Eastern Pennsylvania store known for its made-to-order sandwiches.
But he gave no indication who might be tops on his list. Instead, the former Massachusetts governor wanted to talk about the people of Bucks, an all-important swing county.
"People in Bucks County and in small towns across the country looked to the president to take them to a post-partisan world where the economy would flourish," Romney said after a sit-down with owners of small businesses. "They are disappointed; they are looking for a better direction, a change."
The bus tour, which began on Friday in New Hampshire, will take Romney through six battleground states won by Democrat Barack Obama in 2008: Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan.
It's no coincidence that Romney wanted some of the leading vice presidential aspirants -- Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, joining him on the "Believe in America Every Town Counts" -- to appear with him in battleground states.
"Showcasing them in small, intimate settings gives Romney and the campaign the opportunity to digest how voters react to them, how they react to the scrutiny and the comfort level they feel with each other," said Bruce Haynes, a Republican strategist based in Washington.
Romney's message is jobs, and creating them should not be a Democratic thing or a Republican thing, he said.
"This is not a partisan issue. It is a matter of who has the policies to get America strong again, working together," he said.
Romney said he believes his business experience gives him the tools to do just that.
"I am going to do everything I can to help every American, from the poorest of the poor, the rich and everybody in between," he said.
The tour will focus on small businesses and towns often filled with conservative Democrats and independent voters, who often hold the key to a White House victory.
"It provides moments that show he connects with real people, and that he doesn't consider this 'flyover' country, and it gives him the opportunity to connect with voters who may have not warmed to him," said Christopher Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University of Ohio.
Romney has held similar events with other potential running mates. He campaigned with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.
Romney has been reluctant to detail the process he is using to pick a running mate. In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain stunned the nation by selecting Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a popular social conservative who lacked national experience but oozed charisma.
"I think it's the only time in recent history where the VP candidate actually cost the presidential candidate a substantial amount of votes and will remain a cautionary tale for candidates for the foreseeable future," said Chris Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College. "Vice presidents are a very minimal part of the decision process for voters."
Perhaps the only vice presidential pick in modern times who helped the ticket was John Kennedy's choice of rival Sen. Lyndon Johnson. Johnson's presence helped the liberal Democrat win his home state of Texas, which had voted Republican in previous elections.
"LBJ helped to keep Texas in the Democrats' camp and may have had some marginal influence in some other Southern states," said Bert Rockman, a political scientist at Purdue University.
Mostly the contest is between the presidential nominees, Rockman said.
"If people are generally satisfied with the 'ins,' they tend to keep them in. If they are mostly dissatisfied, they tend to vote the incumbents out. Obama is just about at 50/50, but neither (Vice President Joe) Biden nor whomever Romney picks will make much of a difference," he said.
No need to hurry
The media and political junkies overstate the impact of the vice presidential pick, Haynes said.
Bill Clinton's selection in 1992 of Tennessee Sen. Al Gore was a good example of creating a brand image of a new generation of more centrist Democrats, Borick said.
McCain's pick of Palin proves that the idea of balancing a ticket with someone who is ideologically and geographically different is way overblown, Haynes said.
"A lot of good it did John McCain," he said.
Borick does not think Romney should pick early.
"There is really no advantage to having someone aboard early in the game," he said. "It's better to use the time to fully check out a number of possible running mates through the summer, and then you can match the best option to fit the campaign conditions that you will face in the fall."
Pundits agree that Romney needs to create excitement with his pick.
"Romney's calling card is the image of substance over flashiness; he needs to keep that contrast with Obama's image as exciting but not a skilled manager," said Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University. "A lot of Americans want competent and boring, so go with Ohio's Portman."
"If he is smart, and he is, he will be looking for someone who will help drive his message. That means it will be someone a lot like himself, someone who can carry the economic message, evoke strength, stability and is trustworthy, a good contrast to the president as an alternative to trust on the economy," he said.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter