Sarah Palin's Ghost Stalks Women on Mitt Romney's Vice President List

Another female running mate seems unlikely for Republicans.

April 17, 2012, 5:09 PM

WASHINGTON, April 18, 2012 -- Among the women most likely on Mitt Romney's list of possible running mates, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, have bubbled into VP speculation because of their potential appeal to female voters.

They're two young conservatives who are telegenic and haven't spent a whole lot of time in government. Sound familiar?

The two are among a handful of Republican women who might be perfectly qualified or suited to be on the bottom of the ticket this year, but the ghost of Sarah Palin and her turbulent bid to be vice president stand in their way of being evaluated on their own terms.

After watching Palin's rushed introduction to the contiguous 48 states, and her stumble through national media interviews, Republicans aren't likely to put another relatively obscure woman on the national stage, inviting parallels to be drawn and the same level of scrutiny to be applied.

"The specter of Sarah Palin does hang over the whole process. There's no doubt about that," said Dan Judy, a Republican strategist. "That whole experience ended up not being particularly positive, and I think that picking a woman -- even one who is incredibly well qualified -- would open the door to a lot of questions about trying to pander to women or making kind of a purely political pick."

That might seem unfair. Ayotte, a new senator from New Hampshire, has more experience in government than Barack Obama had when he ran for president four years ago. She worked in the state attorney general's office beginning in 1998, was the AG from 2004 to 2009, and was elected to the Senate in the 2010 midterms.

Ayotte even argued before the Supreme Court in a case against Planned Parenthood, though short of that she hasn't been tested on a national level.

The possibility of another female running mate wouldn't be talked about in Washington circles so much if it weren't for the so-called gender gap haunting Romney, who trails Obama 57 to 38 percent among women in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll.

Thankfully for Romney, his wife has done a good job rallying and exciting moms after a Democratic strategist called her unfit to talk about the economy because she never had a job. Ann Romney might not be her husband's actual running mate, but you can imagine her acting like one in the fall to win as many women voters as possible.

Romney's campaign refuses to discuss the VP search on the record, bequeathing the responsibility of floating names, for now, to the chattering class.

That's how Haley, the Indian-American governor of South Carolina, became a candidate for the spot, despite saying in an interview that she would decline the offer.

A tea party icon with a few years' experience in the state legislature, Haley has emerged as a telegenic Romney surrogate who is nonetheless irrelevant to most Americans outside of South Carolina. Her own official website calls her a "virtual unknown" in 2004, when she won a GOP primary to be a state legislator, and she is still in her first term as governor.

As a running mate, Haley could have the same effect Palin had -- a tea party member to rally the base around a moderate whom conservatives were once skeptical of supporting.

Romney's campaign, however, is not likely to pair the establishment candidate with a running mate who might share Palin's penchant for "going rogue" and speaking lines that aren't approved by the party.

"With a national media, they're going to ask her follow-up questions, which is where Palin fell apart," said Laura Woliver, a professor of political science and women's studies at the University of South Carolina. "The other thing is, she won't help him with the gender gap, just like Palin didn't help McCain with the gender gap. She has not really worked on women's issues and has not done much to help women in South Carolina."

Romney said in a TV interview Tuesday that he isn't reluctant to pick a woman as his running mate, and that he's looking for someone who "could lead the country as president if that were necessary."

"There are women who meet that requirement, as well as men," Romney told CNBC's Larry Kudlow. "We got a long list of people who are really extraordinary leaders in the Republican Party, and you can think of those names, as I can."

Other women who could otherwise have been options to be Romney's No. 2 are Susana Martinez, the New Mexico governor who could curry favor with Hispanics but who said she doesn't want to leave her developmentally disabled sister alone by moving to Washington; Kay Bailey Hutchison, the most senior female Republican senator; and even a fellow private-sector maven like Carly Fiorina, the former chairwoman of HP who ran for Senate in California.

Though no one knows who the VP nominee will be right now, many insiders expect what Judy called a "boring pick" -- an already known establishment Republican like Bob McDonnell, Tim Pawlenty, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan, or the tea party senator Marco Rubio.

"I think it's so soon after the Sarah Palin thing, you're going to see a much safer pick, a more conservative pick," Judy said.

ABC News's Elizabeth Hartfield contributed to this report.

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