Before you can make even a guess at who former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will pick as his vice presidential running mate, you have to decide what this election is really about.

In this Feb. 20, 2012 file photo, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio talks to reporters in Cincinnati, Ohio. Days into his new role as presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney has initiated a months-long search for a running mate, an effort to be guided as much by his methodical corporate-based approach as the shadows of Sarah Palin. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

If you buy that basic way of thinking about the race, it makes it more likely that Romney’s main criteria in picking a running mate will be to do no harm, to avoid the public relations debacle that Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) courted when he named former Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential pick in 2008.

Rather than having his VP pick be a major moment in the campaign, Romney may well want to simply make the pick, have he/she get the requisite two or three days of wall-to-wall media coverage and then disappear back into the fabric of the campaign as Republicans work to shine the spotlight fully on Obama and his record.

That way of thinking seems to have propelled Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s prospects of late. Every one we talk to in DC — literally, everyone — seems to have Portman at or near the top of their Veepstakes list. He is, after all, a former Budget director (albeit during the Bush Administration) and a popular elected official from the swing state of Ohio.

And, most importantly if you believe the theory we laid out above, Portman is relatively short on pizzazz. (Here’s Stephen Colbert’s take on Portman.)

Our latest Veepstakes Line, which ranks the ten people most likely to wind up on the ticket, leans toward the safe(r) picks. Of course, Romney’s not likely to make the pick for several more months so we reserve the right to change our mind. (And then change it again.)

The rankings are below. The number one ranked candidate is the most likely to be the pick. Agree? Or, more likely, disagree? The comments section awaits.

To the Line!

10. Susana Martinez : Martinez, the governor of New Mexico, is probably the least well known politician on this list. And, in a party still trying to get out from under the Palin pick, Martinez’s lack of experience at the national level may ultimately doom her chances. Still, she has much to recommend her as the first Hispanic woman elected governor of a state — and a swing state no less! The 2012 election may be too soon for Martinez’s debut on the national stage but she is someone to keep an eye on beyond this November. (Previous ranking: 5)

9. Chris Christie : If ever there was someone who was temperamentally unsuited to be vice president, it’s the governor of New Jersey. He oozes “boss” from every pore not “guy standing next to the boss”. That said, people don’t tend to turn down the vice presidency when it’s offered to them. Particularly people who face a perilous reelection campaign in 2013. (Previous ranking: 6)

8. Bobby Jindal : Jindal clearly has a large number of vocal advocates within the Republican party. (We know because anytime we write anything with a whiff of criticism regarding Jindal in it, they barrage our email inbox.) While Jindal’s profile is appealing — popular conservative governor from the South, Indian American etc. — it just feels like he is on a trajectory to run for president in 2016 or 2020 rather than serve as VP in 2012. But maybe that’s just us. (Previous ranking: 4)

7. Kelly Ayotte: The New Hampshire Senator is still barely being buzzed about when it comes to the Veepstakes but we’ve got a hunch that she may wind up being a more serious player by the end of this process. Why? Ayotte is a woman (duh) from a swing state who is well liked by both the tea party and establishment wings of the party. She also has a law and order background — she was the state Attorney General before being elected to the Senate in 2010 — and a very natural manner on the campaign trail. If you are looking for a darkhorse, Ayotte could well be it. (Previous ranking: N/A)

6. Bob McDonnell : The Virginia Republican hasn’t done anything wrong since we last ranked the vice presidential candidates. The reason for his drop? The more Republican strategists we talk to, the more convinced we are that some of the things in McDonnell’s past — his controversial thesis, transvaginal ultrasounds etc. — are too risky for the notoriously risk-averse Romney. On the other hand, we are increasingly convinced that Virginia the swing state in November and, if that’s the case, Romney might be convinced to put the very popular governor of the Commonwealth on the ticket. (Previous ranking: 2)

5. Paul Ryan : There’s no candidate who we struggle more to rank on the Line than the Wisconsin Republican. On the one hand, he is sort of a plain choice: a white male from the Midwest who currently serves in Congress. On the other, his proposed budgets make him a potential pizzazz pick — for good and bad. When Romney and Ryan campaigned together in the runup to the Wisconsin primary, there seemed to be a real connection (an underrated factor when it comes to picking a running mate). But does Romney really want to answer for the politically tough decisions in a budget he didn’t even write? (Previous ranking: 10)

4. Tim Pawlenty : If Romney truly wants to make no news and put someone on the ticket who won’t rock the boat, then the former Minnesota governor could be the best choice. While Pawlenty struggled when he was the headliner during his own presidential bid earlier this year, he is a dogged campaigner and someone who has been a steady messenger for Romney. If the whole presidential race rests in the Rust Belt, Pawlenty’s humble roots and Sam’s Club Republicans message could resound. Another plus? he has the best nickname — Tpaw — of anyone on the Line. (Previous ranking: 8)

3. John Thune : The South Dakota Senator is, for some reason, not getting much love in the Veepstakes. We’re not exactly sure why. Thune is a safe pick who brings a bit more charisma and conservative name recognition with him than even Portman. Of course, Thune is from South Dakota, which is not exactly a swing state. Still, Thune’s stock is a bit undervalued at the moment. We would suggest buying now since it seems likely to rise between now and when the pick is finally made. (Previous ranking: 7)

2. Marco Rubio : Yes, we know we compared Rubio to Lionel Messi is our last Veepstakes Line. But, Rubio is very clearly a pizzazz not a plain pick and would overshadow Romney on the ticket from the day he was picked. Does Romney willingly want to do that? It’s also important to remember that for all of the adulation Rubio gets, he is still a newbie on the national stage. We were reminded of that fact when he couldn’t seem to track down the final page of his foreign policy speech at Brookings earlier this week. (Previous ranking: 1)

1. Rob Portman : As odd as this is to write, Portman is very clearly the hottest commodity in the veepstakes at the moment. While we have written that being the pick of GOP insiders isn’t the greatest attribute in an outsider election like this one, Portman seems to fit the bill if Romney is looking for a steady, proven candidate who happens to come from a swing state. One other thing we’ll say for Portman: He’s the rare politician who has a legitimate statewide political organization in a state the size of Ohio. (Previous ranking: 3)