Republican Mitt Romney is considering his choices for a running mate, one of the most significant decisions of his presidential campaign. And the secrecy that shrouds such a selection has given rise to political sideshows that play out in public while the more serious search operation takes place at a largely subterranean level.
Names of new Romney short-listers emerge; others fall by the wayside.
Any kind of proximity to Romney -- or his opponent -- generates questions about GOP veep ambitions.
Why did Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire walk in a July Fourth parade with Romney? Why did Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota turn up in Ohio and Pennsylvania during President Barack Obama's Midwest bus trip? Why did Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio write a Cleveland newspaper column criticizing the president's policies just as Obama headed for the state?
Comments by Romney and his team are parsed for deeper meaning.
What to make of Ann Romney's remark this past week that women are under consideration? What about Romney's earlier comment that outspoken New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie "really is something?" Why did Romney pull back the veil last month to announce that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was being "thoroughly vetted" for vice president after reports to the contrary emerged?
Consultant Bob Shrum, who's worked on numerous Democratic presidential campaigns, says a closely held search operation is a good thing because it protects the people who open up their lives to the campaign to be thoroughly checked out as potential running mates.
But the lack of public information creates an opening for all sorts of political gamesmanship, including self-promotion by short-listers who aren't on the short list at all and denials by actual short-listers who feign nonchalance.
That makes it hard for voters to know what's real and what's simply for show. Which is just fine with Romney.
Take all the recent attention on Portman, busy raising his own profile. He invited reporters to an off-the-record dinner during the primaries, chatted them up on the press bus during a Romney tour of Ohio, and held a round-table with national media Saturday in New Hampshire, where he headlined a fundraiser for the state GOP. He said he was in the state "mostly on a college tour" with his daughter, but also expected to speak at some events in Boston on Monday to benefit Romney's campaign.
Who's really floating his name as a veep contender?
"Is that a Romney float or is that a Portman float or is that a friends-of-Portman float?" asks Paul Light, a professor of government at New York University. "You just don't know."
There's an easy remedy available to wanna-be contenders who've been left off the short list, says Light. All it takes is a well-placed whisper from a friend of a friend to land on the veep list.
"Instead of saying, `I could've been a contender,' you can say, `I am a contender' even if you're not," says Shrum.
No one's owning up, but Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., managed to get mentioned as a veep contender in 2008 although the notion that he was under consideration was laughable to GOP nominee John McCain's campaign.
Shrum, who worked on Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's 2004 campaign, when John Edwards was the running mate, says then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson "very much wanted to be seen as being vetted in 2004, until he pulled his own name out of contention." Shrum's theory is that Richardson never wanted to be chosen, but wanted to make a name for himself in preparation for his own 2008 run for president.
Joel Goldstein, an expert on the vice presidency at Saint Louis University School of Law, said presidential candidates may try to flatter a politician or appease a voting bloc by letting it be known that a certain person is under consideration when that person doesn't have a chance. Some call that an "ego vet."
What really matters, says Goldstein, is who's been asked by the campaign to submit documents and answer questionnaires as part of a thorough vetting process.
Steve Schmidt, a senior strategist to McCain's 2008 presidential run, said campaigns are "very careful to have a very inclusive list of people" as potential running mates to avoid giving offense.
Last month, when word surfaced that Rubio wasn't being vetted, it could have created considerable grief for Romney in Florida and with Hispanics.
Romney quickly came out and said that Rubio was being "thoroughly vetted."
More often, though, Romney clams up when asked about his search efforts.
That's a far cry from the vice presidential selection process of earlier decades, when candidates were paraded before cameras and, ultimately, very publicly ruled out, causing considerable embarrassment. Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee in 1984, would fly potential running mates to Minnesota for interviews and hold joint news conferences.
More recently, candidates have gone to great lengths to keep their deliberations secret until they're ready to announce a choice.
When George W. Bush settled on Dick Cheney in 2000 more than a week before his running mate was to be announced, aides worried the secret might not hold. Campaign architect told a campaign aide who was known to leak information to reporters: "Don't tell anybody -- but it's going to be Danforth."
That evening, three networks reported that former Sen. John Danforth of Missouri had emerged as a top candidate for the GOP ticket.
"We'd gotten what we needed: a little breathing room for Cheney's announcement," Rove wrote in his memoir.
Too much secrecy, though, can prove problematic, particularly when a vice presidential choice is not well known.
George H.W. Bush's surprise announcement at the GOP convention in 1988 that he had selected Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana quickly overshadowed Bush himself when questions surfaced about Quayle's service in the National Guard during Vietnam.
"Within hours, it was attracting all the ink and TV time we had counted on for George's official rollout as nominee," James Baker, Bush's campaign chairman, wrote in his memoir.
Light said leaking names of serious contenders gives campaigns an opportunity to see what unsavory issues might be dredged up by interest groups and the press, and to find out whether the questions will peter out or mushroom. He likens it to entering a horse in lower-profile races before the Kentucky Derby.
"You want to see how your horse does under real conditions against strong competitors," Light said.
Romney promises to reveal his decision on a running mate before the GOP convention in late August but won't share much more.
When his wife was asked by CBS last week if she had a favorite candidate, she said: "I like to think that I have a few that I really like a lot."
Romney himself would add just three words: "What she said."