This summer’s favorite guessing game — speculating about the vice presidential pick — is getting more serious. Next month Republicans will gather in Tampa to officially nominate Mitt Romney and his still to be determined running mate.

Thursday night word leaked out – to the Drudge Report – the former Bush administration Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on Romney’s short list.

Romney’s wife Ann has also hinted that a woman could be on the ticket.

And Rice got a royal reception at Romney’s donor retreat in Utah. She also got a standing ovation this week at a fund-raiser for GOP women in Washington, D.C.

I said it in May and I’ll say it again: the biggest move Romney can make to change his image is via an eye-catching pick for the number two slot on the presidential ticket.

Rice would be a political game changer for the 2012 race.

Yes, she would be the first African-American woman to be on a major party’s presidential ticket, at a time when the GOP is losing ground with minority, female voters and single women. So let the Condimania begin!

But she is more than just a fad because — unlike some other prospects — her selection can never be dismissed as racial tokenism. She is an experienced political player who has scars from previous battles; former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are still taking shots at her in their latest books.

And her expertise on foreign policy, as a former secretary of state, would compensate for Romney’s lack of international experience. As a governor and a businessman, Romney dealt almost exclusively with domestic policy.

The downside of selecting Rice, is the likely conservative backlash to her refusal to ban a woman’s right to an abortion. Opposition from the left will center on her central role in the Bush administration, specifically her role in the Iraq war and the weapons of mass destruction controversy.

And then there is the Republican establishment’s concerns about her past and her role in the Bush administration. Wall Street Jour Bret Steph has written that “she was a bad national security adviser and a bad secretary of state.” Stephans in a May column opposing any thought that she might be a good fit for Romney, Stephens wrote, “choosing her would simply be evidence that he doesn’t have much faith in his own November chances.”

But Rice has a strong political spine. She flew in the face of anti-immigrant fervor from the GOP right wing recently by standing up for immigrants. She opposed individual states, beginning with Arizona, passing laws to increase pursuit of illegal immigrants. That position — politically daring in the modern-day GOP — will be a big help as the Romney campaign tries to win over Latino voters.

There is another critical reason why Romney should pick Rice. Over the last few months, she has partnered with Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City public school system, to draw attention to the crisis in American public education. They co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations panel that examined the failure of public education as a threat to America’s national security.

They found that 75 percent of American young adults do not qualify to serve in the military because they have criminal records, are physically unfit or — the biggest reason — have inadequate levels of education. One out of every four American students fails to get the high school diploma needed to join the military.

This includes about half of the nation’s black and Hispanic students, who drop out of high school. Even more disturbing is the report’s finding that 30 percent of the young people graduating from America’s high schools don’t do well enough in math, science and English on the aptitude test to serve in the military.

The report also screamed out that the U.S.  State Department is unable to find enough foreign-language speakers to serve as interpreters and translators.

“The education crisis may well be the greatest threat to our national security,” Rice explained at a recent speech before the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“The crisis in K-12 is producing unemployable people who will ultimately be on the dole because they will have nowhere else to go.”

In his election night speech in New Hampshire last week, Romney said he wanted to “stop the unfairness of urban children being denied access to the good schools of their choice.”
Rice has exactly the right message to jump start the education debate.

By putting Rice on the ticket Romney could reform his image and give the education reform movement a boost. And win or lose in November, he will have created a political legacy for himself and done his country a great service.

An earlier version of this column originally appeared in The Hill newspaper and on TheHill.com.