It’s time for Mitt Romney to start searching for a running mate, and it’s pretty obvious that the vetting process is going to be different this time around.

It’s not going to be pretty,” said [Republican operative] Rick Wilson. “It’s not only about whether they paid their taxes, but are they ready to face the cameras and have they ever said anything that get used in an ad. You never had to deal with this YouTube archive before.”

“In this hyper-connected Internet world, what passed for vetting a few years ago is now grossly inadequate,” he said.

This time, they’re not going to pick someone who has to be taught the entire history of the Cold War on index cards. And they don’t want someone who’s been digitally captured saying that nearly half the Democrats in Congress are actually communists. Of course, candidates will be required to have paid their taxes. And they probably don’t want someone who has a record of stealing from the Republican Party (sorry, Marco Rubio).

In recent years, the Republicans have been extremely unpredictable in their choices of running mates. I do remember seeing Quayle listed as one of about 10 or 12 possible veep picks in a 1988 New York Times article. I joked at the time that Bush would pick the “pretty one,” which he did. But that was late in the game, and almost no one knew anything about Dan Quayle. Bob Dole selected Jack Kemp, which came as a surprise. Kemp had been out of office for a few years and he’d never held any office higher than congressman. He didn’t bring any regional help, he didn’t excite the base, and he couldn’t help Dole carry New York State. In 2000, no one could have predicted that Dubya would select the man he chose to run the vetting process. And Sarah Palin came from out of the blue.

The Democrats did throw a hail mary in 1984 with Geraldine Ferraro, but they’ve been a little more rational since then. Dukakis tried to repeat the Massachusetts/Texas magic of the 1960 ticket when he selected Lloyd Bentsen. Clinton surprised some people by eschewing regional balance with his pick of Gore, but the strategy worked well, winning Gore’s home state of Tennessee twice in a row. Gore’s selection of Lieberman confirmed his DLC credentials and was an obvious effort to win enough Jewish votes in Florida to put him over the top. Unfortunately, a badly designed ballot in Palm Beach caused a lot of those Jewish retirees to erroneously cast their ballots for well-known anti-Semite Pat Buchanan. John Kerry chose his closest competitor, which was reminiscent of Reagan’s decision to put Poppy on his ticket in 1980. Finally, Obama selected one of his weaker opponents, but a man with a long track record in the U.S. Senate.

Romney won’t follow McCain’s example, but he will consider some of these other strategies. The least likely scenario would be for him to follow Reagan and Kerry’s strongest-opponent strategy and pick Santorum. Nor will he follow Obama and pick from further down the roster. As I see it, he can emulate Gore, Clinton, or Dukakis.

If he wants to emulate Gore, he will pick someone who gives him moderate credentials and can help him win one big state. An obvious choice would be Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio.

If he wants to emulate Clinton, he will forget about any regional balance and pick someone who shares his profile as a New England Republican with a fairly moderate record. I don’t think this strategy would go over very well at the convention and it would cause a lot of infighting within the party, but it would help him shake that Etch a Sketch. Unfortunately for Mitt, there aren’t a whole lot of people to choose from. Maybe former New York Governor George Pataki would fit the bill.

If he wants to emulate Dukakis, he’ll choose someone from the South who is a real conservative son of a gun. Possible choices include former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, current Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker.

If he wants to mix and match a little bit, he could go with the other Tennessee senator, Lamar Alexander.

There are two other things worthy of some consideration. Romney could wind up in the same place that Walter Mondale and John McCain found themselves. Polling data could paint a grim picture where none of the obvious choices are going to do enough to make a difference. He may feel compelled to search for a game changer.

If he goes that route, he may seek to radically alter some demographic, which would probably be either the voting pattern of Latinos or of women. He’d be well-advised to stay away from ethically troubled candidates like Nikki Haley of South Carolina or Marco Rubio of Florida. And New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, both Latinos, are quite light on experience.

The last consideration is the base and their level of enthusiasm. Like McCain, Romney has a problem with the base. Picking an extreme social conservative can serve like a shot of adrenaline, but it can also wear off and leave a bad hangover. The battle for the presidency is not just a battle among the bases of the two parties. It’s a battle for the middle, too. Firing up the base by picking a factually-challenged fire-breathing conservative will help turnout and volunteerism and fundraising among the faithful, but it will cause suburbanites to flee into Obama’s arms.

So, tough choices for Romney. Which strategy do you think he will employ?

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