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The Boston Globe

Opinion

John E. Sununu

An exciting VP? Don’t go for it, Mitt

Stephan Savoia/associated press

The wrong vice presidential candidate would create a distraction from Romney.

FOR ALL of his progress in the presidential primary to date, Mitt Romney hasn’t had many big days. In a campaign of baby steps, however, tomorrow should provide a leap forward. The three primaries this week — in Wisconsin, Maryland, and the District of Columbia — may not be headline grabbers, but all are “winner take all.’’ With 100 delegates in play, they could make Romney’s math much simpler, and quickly change the topic of conversation.

Every public poll in the three contests has shown a solid Romney lead. A full sweep would take his delegate total to over 660. Strong showings in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island later this month should push his total to over 800. That makes it possible for Romney to reach the clinching total of 1,144 as early as the end of May.

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With a clear path ahead, not even wishful thinking at cable news channels can keep hope of a deadlocked convention alive. They will discard the “primary struggle’’ theme for the “veepstakes guessing game’’ in a heartbeat.

The narrative for choosing a running mate looks a lot like choosing the nominee. There are plenty of options, passionate feelings about who’d be best, and at the end of the day, the party learns to love the choice. For all of the discussion about playing to key states, adding foreign policy experience, or balancing a ticket’s ideology, the stark truth is that none of it really matters. In the end, there is only one imperative: don’t blow it.

The vice presidential pick can bring on board a good campaigner, a substantive voice, or some skills and experience where the nominee falls short. This very modest upside potential can be quickly and effortlessly offset by a choice that becomes a distraction. Distractions are the result of the unexpected, and the unexpected occurs when candidates have been poorly vetted. (You know who I mean.)

Thirty years ago, vetting meant digging through personal history to uncover skeletons in the closet. That type of inspection continues today, but is far less important than it once was. The scrutiny once reserved for national campaigns has become commonplace in races for every local office imaginable. And local media can now conduct background checks with a thoroughness once reserved for the FBI. By the time a candidate attracts national attention these days, there just aren’t many unknowns left. Equally important, standards have softened. Divorce, drinking, and even past drug use had little bearing on the Oval Office pursuits of Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Obama.

Today, distractions are more likely to be created when running mates differ significantly on key issues. Differences are to be expected. Technology has made a thorough vetting easier - but also more important than ever. In the digital age, things you say and do are immortalized online. It didn’t take long for the press to find comments from Sarah Palin supporting the infamous “bridge to nowhere’’ - before she endorsed John McCain’s crusade against it. Good campaigns will identify conflicting positions early and avoid the embarrassment of being unprepared.

But only the national media can accomplish the most important level of vetting - that of a candidate’s character. You can package, present, and position a vice-presidential nominee any way you want, but ultimately the public will settle on its own perception of the individual’s persona. Strong or weak, funny or sour, sharp or dull - opinions form with coverage over time; and for candidates who have never had the exposure of a presidential campaign, that outcome is uncertain.

Introducing a brand new face in the midst of a high-profile campaign is risky business at best. For all their strengths, Geraldine Ferraro and Dan Quayle were perceived by voters as being less experienced than both their running mates and counterparts across the aisle. In the end, that fact had minimal effect upon the outcome, but litigating the issue in the heat of battle made it tougher to control the message of their campaigns.

So let us embrace the obvious: The winning choice is the dull choice — a running mate the public already knows, warts and all. Mondale, Bush, Gore, Cheney, Biden. These were not picks that lit the world on fire. They were serious, experienced names, vetted by the harsh media glare of a previous run for president or service in the president’s cabinet. They weren’t from key states, and weren’t part of some grand plan to balance ideology. But they all won.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire. He has not endorsed a presidential candidate. His father, the former New Hampshire governor John H. Sununu, has endorsed Mitt Romney.

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