Could Kelly Ayotte be Romney's running mate?
"There are probably 15 names of people, including Kelly Ayotte," he replied.
Ayotte, who was elected in 2010, has been a consistent advocate for Romney in New Hampshire during the Republican primary process and beyond, winning positive reviews in the process.
"She has been a totally hands-on surrogate who has been like a volunteer," said former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, a senior campaign adviser to Romney in the state. "She will do anything we ask her to, and she does it with great enthusiasm and spirit."
The appeal of Ayotte as a running mate is obvious: Youthful and articulate, the 44-year-old former attorney general can make a strong case for Romney while appealing to female swing voters, a voting bloc expected to play a major role in deciding swing states like Colorado and Ayotte's native New Hampshire. (A CNN/ORC international poll this week showed President Obama with a double-digit lead over Romney with women nationally.) A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, she has staked out a reputation as strong on national security - an area where Romney has little in the way of credentials.
Yet Ayotte is rarely mentioned among the leading contenders to join the Republican ticket. That's due in part to Sarah Palin: Memories of the 2008 Republican presidential nominee - another 40-something woman with little national name recognition before she was tapped - are still fresh in many Republicans' minds. The notion that Palin was not prepared for the presidency has taken root among many in the party, and Romney's advisers have stressed that his running mate must be someone ready to step into the top job if necessary. Ayotte, who has just 18 months of Senate experience, may - fairly or not - be seen as unable to meet that criterion.
Rath declined to compare Ayotte to Palin directly, but he stressed her credentials in arguing that it is unfair to characterize her as not ready to be president. "She is a tested longtime public servant with a career going back over a decade," he said, pointing to Ayotte's five years as attorney general, when she prosecuted a pair of high-profile murder cases and argued a parental notification abortion case before the Supreme Court.
"It is fair to say about Kelly Ayotte that she has more substantive experience in elective office than Barack Obama did when he was elected President of the United States," he said.
Last week, Ayotte stood in for Romney at a conference of abortion rights opponents in Virginia, where she showed off her willingness to serve in the attack dog role often required of running mates.
"How we treat the weakest among us is truly a reflection on who we are as a nation, and President Obama's record shocks the conscious when it comes to protecting life and unfortunately on many other issues as well," she said. "He has a vision of America that is very different from what we want for our children and our grandchildren. I shudder to think what would happen in a second term."
Asked about being on the Republican ticket last month, Ayotte told New Hampshire's WMUR, "I don't even think about that."
"I'm focused on representing New Hampshire in the Senate," she added.
Still, Ayotte seems open to getting on the ticket: She told the Boston Herald in May that debating Joe Biden in a vice presidential debate "would be quite enjoyable." If the Romney camp decides that her potential appeal outweighs concerns about a perceived lack of experience, she might just get the chance.
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