FRANKENMUTH, Mich. – When Mitt Romney travels to Wisconsin, people tell him to choose the Badger State’s Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate. In Ohio, they urge him to pick their senator, Rob Portman.
“I get a very biased audience depending on the state I’m in,” the presumptive Republican presidential nominee told reporters on a flight from Iowa to Michigan on the eve of the last day of his six-state “Every Town Counts” bus tour through key battleground states.
The tour -- a quest for exposure and votes in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan -- has showcased no fewer than four Republican leaders often mentioned as prospective running mates for Romney. In addition to Ryan and Portman, Romney has appeared with New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in what amount to auditions for the second most powerful position in the United States government.
Romney has campaigned with all four officials in the past, but not since the vice presidential vetting process has begun. On this tour, the scrutiny was intense and Romney’s bus companions played it safe. There was no going off script and no attempt to divert the spotlight from the man who may one day be their running mate.
First up to audition was Ayotte, the only female Republican official to appear with Romney and the only potential ticket mate to appear with the presumptive nominee but not ride on his bus.
Ayotte, who endorsed Romney on November 20, well ahead of the New Hampshire primary, appeared at both of the scheduled bus stops in her state. In Stratham, at the 300-acre farm where Romney also launched his presidential campaign in 2011, Ayotte attacked the president for taking America “down the wrong road.” As she handed over the microphone, Ann and Mitt Romney greeted her warmly and each kissed her on the cheek. Romney, who has a house on the state’s Lake Winnipesaukee, told the crowd that Ayotte is a “great senator” and a “great friend.”
Later, in Latham, N.H., at an event billed as an ice-cream social, Romney’s competitor-turned-endorser -- Pawlenty – made the introduction. But Ayotte reappeared afterward to help serve ice cream. While Romney dished up vanilla and chocolate-chunk, Ayotte stood two people away and handled the chocolate. She took a photo from one constituent and handed it to Romney, who signed the image as Ayotte leaned in to give instruction.
When he finished they both turned to the woman and in unison said, “Thank you!”
Pawlenty had the good fortune of getting to spend the most time with Romney on the bus tour, traveling with him through both New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. One of the most active Romney surrogates among the list of prospects (granted, he also does not have a day job), he was the only auditioner to ride on both Romney’s bus and his charter flight. He also proved to be the most fiery speaker of the four prospects on the tour.
The former Minnesota governor introduced Romney at three events, including the New Hampshire ice-cream social and two rallies in Pennsylvania. While Ayotte spoke, Pawlenty mingled with Romney staffers and some voters who arrived late and were forced to stand at the back of the crowd of over 1,000. When he took the stage, Pawlenty spoke forcefully and worked to rile up the crowds before Romney spoke.
“New Hampshire, have you had enough of runaway federal spending?” he challenged the crowd at the ice-cream social, his voice hoarse. More than 500 thundered back a resounding, “Yes!” including Romney, who also nodded his approval and joined in the applause. “Have you had enough of Barack Obama?” Pawlenty yelled, and got a similar response. Romney laughed as he looked out at his enthusiastic supporters.
On Day Three, which was Father’s Day, Portman brought his wife, Jane, on the bus to travel through Ohio with Mitt, Ann, two of their son, and five grandchildren. Portman described the bus as “wild” and “fun” with all of the kids running around with blueberry pie on their shirts.
In Brunswick, Portman poured syrup on pancakes that Romney and his family had served to hundreds who waited out a rainstorm to see him. Later in Troy, he sat down for a burger with Romney and House Speaker John Boehner in K’s Hamburger Shop, a local fixture.
The possibility of sending an Ohioan to the White House as vice president excited many who attended the rallies where Portman appeared with Romney, but Portman stuck to bland assurances about his happiness in his current job.
“I’m lucky to be where I am,” he told one man in the pancake line in Brunswick. Later in Newark he responded to another woman who said she thought he’d make a good vice president. “Well, thank you. I’m happy doing what I’m doing, representing Ohio.”
Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, was the last to audition and spent the least amount of time with Romney. He appeared Monday at Romney’s lone stop in Wisconsin, at a textile mill in Janesville, after riding over on Romney’s bus from Romney’s hotel.
Pointing out several people he recognized in the audience, Ryan praised both the community and state he lives in, and told the crowd that they were among the few who live in states that “would likely determine the trajectory of this country.”
Ryan is a hero to conservatives because of the stringent budget he wrote, one which the House has passed and Romney has endorsed. But he shared the stage Monday with other GOP heavyweights from his state – Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ron Johnson, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
It was Walker, also a conservative icon after winning a historic recall election, who introduced Romney at the morning event – while Ryan stood offstage amid the crowd. That was a shift from Romney’s earlier swing through the state, when Ryan was constantly at his side, making all the introductions, and displaying excellent retail campaign skills. Spotting Ryan during Walker’s introduction, Romney motioned the congressman onto the stage and warmly shook his hand.
Ryan has avoided questions about his vice presidential prospects, and he refused to discuss the process in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press at the end of May. But as with Portman in Ohio, some of Wisconsin’s residents were not so shy. Dan Sinykin, the president of the mill where Romney raised the topic directly with the presumptive nominee in his welcoming remarks.
“Gov. Romney, we are in Congressman Ryan’s hometown,” Sinykin said. “He is right here. If you have an announcement to make …” As the audience laughed and began to cheer, Ryan shook his head from side to side.
Rebecca Kaplan and Haley Bull contributed to this report.