Mitt Romney has a choice to make.
He has to pick a running mate, a choice that he might announce as early as this week. But how to decide?
Should he go full Sarah Palin -- with an energetic, brash conservative who could electrify his party's base as the former Alaska governor did in 2008?
Or should he go anti -Palin, picking a seasoned politician prepared to avoid the campaign trail missteps that hounded her four years ago -- a choice one GOP wag last spring called an "incredibly boring white guy?"
The almost-certain GOP nominee isn't giving many hints about his thinking, and his campaign declined to comment last week.
But he is getting plenty of advice.
Late last week, a veep boomlet exploded around former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, a pick supporters said might inject some excitement into the campaign. Columnist Peggy Noonan called a potential Rice pick "brilliant," and Palin herself suggested Rice would be "wonderful."
No so fast, conservatives shot back. Rice supports abortion rights and has never run for office. And she says she's not interested.
"It's silly," fumed conservative blogger Erick Erickson.
The back-and-forth suggested the stakes remain high around Romney's choice, particularly among some conservatives who think the campaign lacks a certain spark. "I hope that he goes big and he goes bold," Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said last month on Fox News. "I think he's got the capacity to do that."
But most Republicans admit they would be shocked if Romney's pick lands far outside the GOP mainstream. The former Massachusetts governor is close enough to Barack Obama, they said, that he doesn't need to make a risky, Palin-like pick -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for example, or tea party favorite Rep. Allen West of Florida.
More likely is Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
"I don't think there's going to be any gambling with the vice presidential nominee," said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Kris Kobach, Kansas secretary of state and an informal Romney adviser on immigration, agreed. "His choice isn't going to be a gamble," Kobach said. "It's going be a very well-calculated choice, because he doesn't need to gamble."
Eric Zahnd, Platte County prosecutor and a Romney delegate to the Republican National Convention, said "the most important thing is that you not shoot yourself in the foot by nominating somebody who will be a drag on the ticket."
Republicans said they're convinced Romney remains in a stronger position against Obama than John McCain was in 2008. In the Real Clear Politics poll average on July 10, Romney trailed Obama by just 1.9 percent. In July 2008, McCain trailed Obama by an average of 5.2 percent.
As a result, they said, Romney may decide he doesn't need to find a running mate with national appeal who could reset the contest -- or electrify party conservatives, as Palin did in 2008.
"I don't think he'll necessarily be swayed by having to have somebody particularly dynamic or charismatic," said Kansas GOP convention delegate Brandon Kenig. "I think he is going to be conscious in choosing a nominee who will generate some excitement."
Potential running mates who might create "excitement," some Republicans said, include U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, considered the driving intellect in the party's argument to reduce government spending. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also is a favorite with some budget-conscious Republicans, and has participated in several rallies as a Romney surrogate.
Sen. Marco Rubio, others pointed out, might provide a spark in the Hispanic community -- while helping the campaign win his home state, Florida, considered crucial to Romney's chances.
"The others are all fine, but I think Rubio would have the greatest appeal," said Kay Hoflander, a Missouri GOP convention delegate.
There are other long-shot choices: Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire is considered a potential choice, as are Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez also is mentioned by some Republicans, as is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Romney's wife, Ann, has told some interviewers her husband is actively considering a woman for the ticket. That could include businesswoman Meg Whitman and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, although Haley, another tea party favorite, has said she isn't being vetted for the spot.
Interestingly, most of Romney's primary opponents -- Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and others -- are not now considered serious contenders for the second spot.
The exception is Pawlenty, who left the presidential race before it really began. Pawlenty and Portman are considered the most mainstream choices Romney could make, and perhaps the most likely.
"I think he'll go for a safe pick," said Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and a nationally recognized expert on the vice presidency. "Whether it will be the safest pick -- I don't know."
Last week on InTrade, the online prediction market, Portman was given a 31 percent chance of landing a spot on the ticket, with Pawlenty at 15 percent. No other potential candidate was in double digits.
The InTrade markets lists 56 possible nominees (including Palin), but no one from Missouri or Kansas is on the list. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said he has not been approached about the job, and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback -- an early supporter of Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- is considered an extremely remote possibility.
Some suggested Romney's choice won't change the basic dynamics of the race, no matter whom he chooses. "Only in a very close race would a VP choice make much of a difference," said University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis. "Maybe Portman would help with Ohio."
Every presidential winner since 1964 has carried Ohio, perhaps giving Portman an edge.
But others maintain the veepstakes decision is still important.
"It's a big mistake to think it doesn't matter," said St. Louis University's Goldstein. "Imagine what would happen if Romney announced that he was going to pick Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry. There would be a celebration in the West Wing of the White House."
Any celebration in the White House -- or anywhere else -- will have to wait until Romney's decision is made public. Although the campaign isn't speaking publicly, observers said the vetting process appears to be more deliberate that McCain's in 2008, when Palin was picked just days before the Republican National Convention.
"Governor Romney is being extremely deliberative, and he's taking his time. He's talking to prospective nominees, and the vetting process is extraordinarily thorough," Priebus said.
Reporters looking for clues about the choice have largely come up empty. The website romneyportman.com has been taken, but so has romneyrubio.com, romneyjindal.com, and several other romney-plus-a-possible-candidate.coms.<p>Romneypalin.com also has been snagged, but in an interview last week on Fox News, the former Alaska governor gave no indication she wants another spot on a GOP ticket.
Indeed, quite the opposite.
"I think that Governor Romney will probably play it safe, relatively speaking, in terms of finding someone who is a known commodity," Palin said. "So that the media doesn't do what the media did to me in making things up and kind of thrashing somebody's reputation and record in order to distract from what the election was really supposed to be about."