Chief correspondent

Mitt Romney’s search for a vice presidential nominee went public last week with presumed tryouts for three possible contenders and a shout out for Marco Rubio by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee after a report that the Florida senator was not being thoroughly vetted by the campaign.

The Rubio episode was a rare and unexpected parting of the curtain of secrecy obscuring Romney’s search process. The apparent tryouts for former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin were a long-accepted part of the process that can be as misleading as it is instructive. Only Romney’s tight inner circle can say what, if anything, it all meant.

The world may never know or care about the full story of Romney’s real consideration of Rubio. But the flurry over the question of is-he-or-isn’t-he being vetted was a reminder that there is no more opaque aspect of presidential politics, and no more frustrating a story for political reporters to cover, than the selection of a vice presidential candidate.

Romney said only two people know for certain who is being seriously vetted by his campaign: himself and Beth Myers, his long-trusted adviser who oversees the search process. There are obviously others. Anyone who has been asked to turn over sensitive financial or medical records knows, as do that person’s tax accountant, top aide and, probably, spouse.

That assumes those politicians being asked for sensitive information are under truly serious consideration. Still that is a small circle, and the history of these selections is that those who know who is truly in the running don’t talk and those who talk often don’t know anything concrete.

Piercing through this secrecy is fraught with problems for those trying to tease out the status of a presumptive nominee’s intentions. Campaigns have been known to deliberately mislead the press and public by suggesting that someone is being seriously vetted who isn’t at all.

The vetting process

Campaigns vet people for political convenience, to satisfy a constituency without any intention of picking them. And, as John McCain showed four years ago with his selection of Sarah Palin, they sometimes are vetting a potential candidate whom no one outside the inner circle, and some who thought they were inside it, knows about.

Some candidates privately ask not to be vetted unless there is a serious likelihood that they will be selected. That got President Obama’s campaign in some hot water four years ago when the news broke, after his choice of Vice President Biden was announced, that he hadn’t vetted Hillary Clinton. It later turned out that the lack of vetting was at her request.

There is a variation of this. A prospective candidate once told the selection team that he wanted to publicly take himself out of the running, but only after being assured that he wouldn’t be selected.

Amid the barrage of speculation and handicapping that surrounds the selection of a vice presidential running mate, secrecy is the price of admission into the world of vetting and serious consideration.

Prospective candidates in the past have been warned — when asked to fill out the deep questionnaire required of all those on the short list or to provide sensitive personal records — to avoid all leaks, under penalty of being taken off the list. That is generally enough of an incentive to keep quiet even the most ambitious and talkative of them.

There may be as many as 200 lawyers or researchers helping Romney vet prospective candidates based on past history. But those teams are segmented and compartmentalized and know only who they’ve been assigned to scrub. The few people who eventually are entrusted with knowledge of a broader list of serious candidates are both highly trusted by the search process leader and little-known to people even inside the campaign.

Campaigns have long taken the position of not responding to any public speculation or even specific reports of someone being vetted or not being vetted. That’s what made Romney’s decision to declare that Rubio was being vetted so unusual. At a minimum, it was a measure of the sensitivity of the Latino vote and Romney’s tenuous standing with that community.

What also is unknowable, until the very end of the process, is just where the process stands. Vetting takes many weeks. It starts with a search of public records of a long list of candidates. Eventually the list is pared down to a handful. But assembling the financial and medical data required of those on the final list of contenders takes considerable time, and all candidates aren’t necessarily asked at the same time for their data.

That means it is possible Rubio had not been asked for the personal records of the finalists, as of last week. But those who have knowledge of how this all works say that by the end of this month Romney should have asked those he is truly considering to start assembling their records. That’s certainly true if Romney is thinking of announcing his choice well before the convention. There will be no Palin rush jobs this year.

It’s the nominee’s choice

Public tryouts offer some clues, and campaigns carefully monitor public discussion and take polls to measure prospective candidates strengths and weaknesses. But what goes on behind the scenes between the presumptive nominee and the contenders is usually far more important. Personal comfort is essential, given the role of modern vice presidents.

Al Gore was on few early lists in 1992 as Bill Clinton set out to pick a vice president. He and Clinton were of the same generation, the same region and held similar views on many issues. He broke the rules for vice presidents. But as Clinton got to know Gore in private meetings, the personal chemistry overrode everything else.

Vice presidential nominees can emerge late in the process, at least in the public speculation. Jack Kemp wasn’t much thought about seriously until a few days before Bob Dole picked him in 1996. Dick Cheney was an even bigger surprise, since he was in charge of George W. Bush’s VP selection process.

Candidates even confound their advisers. In 1984, Walter Mondale seemed to have settled on Dianne Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco. After his advisers had left Mondale alone in Minnesota as they went off to attend to some other pre-convention business, the candidate changed his mind and decided that Geraldine Ferraro was his real choice. His team was caught off guard. Like Palin, Ferraro received a late and hasty vetting.

The fact that Portman and Pawlenty, and perhaps Ryan, are among those under serious consideration is widely accepted at this point, though hardly confirmed. Whether Rubio makes the final cut isn’t knowable, given his relatively brief experience in the Senate. That leaves New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and a surprise or two, as possible contenders.

Romney and Ryan have good chemistry in public, and the congressman excites the conservative intelligentsia, but he champions a controversial budget plan, and it is a big leap from being a House member to a national ticket.

Pawlenty has been through the presidential campaign process, would be seen ready to be president on the basis of eight years as governor of Minnesota and was vetted four years ago by McCain. But, like Romney, he does not have Washington experience, and his presidential campaign fell flat.

Portman does have Washington experience and the added advantage that he could give Romney a boost in Ohio, if his service in the Bush administration doesn’t prove a major negative to the presumptive nominee.

What does all that add up to? Ask Mitt Romney or Beth Myers. Or stay close to Twitter when the news is about to break.

For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to