WASHINGTON — The most striking thing about the current Republican vice presidential field is its striking superiority to the Republican presidential field of six months ago. Former Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rob Portman are among the more accomplished, knowledgeable, ideologically balanced political figures in American politics. The same could not be said of Rick Perry, Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann.
The untested, of course, are also unwounded. It is easier to appear qualified and dignified when you haven't been stripped, prodded with sharp sticks and forced to perform tricks on dozens of debate stages.
But there is more at work in this obvious stature gap. Part of the explanation is structural. Presidential candidates are largely self-selected, which favors ambition and self-regard above, well, all other traits. A vice presidential field results from a party's consensus on talent and competence.
A portion of the gap, in this case, is also cyclical. The presidential timing for Bush, Rubio or Christie — for a variety of personal and political reasons — was premature. The strong Republican vice presidential field of 2012 is also the strong Republican presidential field of 2016, just coming into its own.
Yet Mitt Romney's realistic shot at the presidency could make his vice presidential choice a golden ticket — essentially ending the contest for the Republican future before it actually begins. Any Republican on the current list who is elected vice president would become the party's presumptive presidential nominee after Romney's service.
How should Romney make his choice? Political science offers some guidance. There is little evidence that choosing a running mate to gain advantage in his or her home state or region makes any difference. But the choice of a running mate seems to influence public perceptions of a presidential candidate himself. It is one element of a diffuse public judgment on presidential leadership.
I'm not sure anyone would be flattered by hearing, “You have such wonderful vice presidential skills.” But they can be important. A presidential campaign is a series of messaging efforts, like drives in a football game. A vice presidential candidate can gain or lose ground.