Mitt Romney and at least two other potential running mates are among a small group of guests gathered this weekend at John McCain's Arizona retreat for something like a political version of "The Bachelor." The weekend of food and fellowship is being billed as a purely social occasion, but there is bound to be some jockeying for McCain's favor.
Romney goes into the weekend with a leg up - of the Republicans who ran against McCain in the primaries, he has been the most active in supporting McCain since dropping out.
Recently he has been spending much of his time stumping for McCain, appearing at tiny county GOP dinners, raising money, and going on national television to bash Democratic front-runner Barack Obama. To finance his activities, he has launched a new political action committee called Free and Strong America, and he is keeping in close touch with former advisers to his campaign, some of whom work at the committee.
Romney is also among the wealthiest and best fund-raisers of the Republican vice presidential prospects, an important asset in a year when McCain will probably face a financial disadvantage against his Democratic rival. Earlier this month, Romney gathered about 80 members of his national finance team, introduced them to McCain, and asked them to support the nominee. The group responded with a standing ovation.
While Romney's aides say that he is simply trying to help his party, some political observers say that he appears to be auditioning to be McCain's running mate, and that he has a chance at getting the nod. Analysts say his relative youth, executive experience as governor and in the corporate world, and finance credentials could help compensate for the weaknesses of McCain, who has admitted that the economy was not his strong suit.
But McCain seemed to detest Romney during the primary - by New Hampshire, McCain was openly scorning the former Massachusetts governor as a disingenuous flip-flopper.
Joel Goldstein, a scholar of vice presidents and professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, said one of Romney's chief hurdles is to get McCain to like him.
"That's the way you run for vice president - you appeal to an electorate of one, and show you'll be a loyal helper," he said. "And that's what Romney, I think, has been trying to do."
Romney's extraordinary energy distinguished him in the GOP primary field this year and could also be an important point in his favor. As if to remind McCain of his capacity for relentless campaigning, he has gone back to crisscrossing the country and campaigning almost full-time for the benefit of McCain and the party.
A snapshot of Romney's daybook this week: On Wednesday, he will host an exclusive fund-raiser featuring President Bush at his home in Deer Valley, Utah, for the Republican Party's coordinated campaign fund, Victory '08. The next day, he will travel to Naples, Fla., to raise money for Representative Connie Mack, and on Friday he will visit Orlando for a fund-raiser for Representative Tom Feeney. On Saturday, he will serve as surrogate for McCain at the Colorado state Republican Convention.
In the coming month, Romney is also scheduled to stump for McCain at state party conventions in Oregon and Texas, and will host another Victory '08 fund-raiser on June 11 in Boston. His calendar is also loaded with fund-raisers for Republicans running in congressional and statewide races around the country, with more events being added nearly every day.
Financing his travels is his new PAC, whose eight paid staffers include executive director Peter Flaherty, formerly the Romney campaign's liaison to conservatives; senior adviser Beth Myers, Romney's former campaign manager; and communications adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's former spokesman. Fehrnstrom denied that Romney's travels had anything to do with Romney wanting to be vice president.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported yesterday that Romney has reached a deal to buy a home in southern California and will close on the property in La Jolla, just north of San Diego, at the end of the month. Fehrnstrom confirmed the deal yesterday.
While Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California is term-limited and must leave office after 2010, Fehrnstrom denied any political positioning.
"Governor Romney has been looking at property on the West Coast because he has family in California, and because his wife, Ann, spends a good deal of time there riding horses," Fehrnstrom said. One of Romney's five sons, Matt, lives outside San Diego.
Romney also owns homes in Belmont and Wolfeboro, N.H., as well as Deer Valley, Utah.
Also visiting McCain's home in Arizona this weekend are two others on many lists of potential running mates - Governors Charlie Crist of Florida and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. Others, including former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, had scheduling conflicts. Several other McCain friends and supporters are also there.
The significance of the invitations was not clear, though. Historian Michael Beschloss told MSNBC they could be "window dressing," a gesture to a trio of politicians whom McCain does not want to be seen as dismissing, but is not seriously considering as a vice presidential pick.
"That would be my guess, that this is more cosmetic than real," Goldstein agreed, though he added that such "beauty pageant" gatherings can sometimes change relationships. "Jimmy Carter in 1976 said [Walter] Mondale was low on his list at the beginning, and . . . then when Carter invited Mondale down to Plains, Ga., they really connected."
Steve Duprey, an aide for McCain, said the event would be exactly as advertised - a chance for McCain and his wife to get together with some of the people who helped on the campaign - and would focus on simple pleasures. "They relax, they talk sports, they enjoy the beautiful setting, they go hiking, eat well, and take some time off from the campaign."
While most observers agree that Romney would help McCain among economic conservatives, it is not as clear whether Romney would be the best choice to attract social conservatives, many of whom already dislike McCain, considering him insufficiently devoted to their issues. Romney has changed positions on abortion and is a Mormon, a religion some evangelicals consider a cult.
"It's hard to quantify," said Gary Bauer, president of American Values, a socially conservative group. "Governor Romney was getting evangelical support in the primaries, and he did have a Reagan-type message when he campaigned. So my hope would be that his particular faith would not be a determining factor in all this."
But Michael Nelson, a political scientist at Rhodes College in Memphis, said he thought Romney would also appeal to social conservatives, and that even if he is not a perfect choice for McCain, he might be the best available.
"He's already established himself as someone voters think of as a plausible contender for national office; he passes the age test - he's not too old, but he's also not too young," he said. "The other thing with Romney is that McCain faces a severe challenge this year, which no Republican ever has before, matching the Democrats in fund-raising."
But Romney advisers dismissed the notion that he is gunning for the job.
"I think he thinks the odds are long," said Tom Rath, a former adviser to Romney. "And I don't think he worries much about it."