The Ultimate Job Interview

“George W. did not interview his shortlist,” says Keating, who lost out to Bush vetter Cheney. Quayle and Palin were problematic. Clockwise from left: Mark Peterson / Redux; Philip Gould / Corbis; Robyn Beck, AFP / Getty Images

With the Republican nomination virtually assured, Mitt Romney would be wise to start thinking about a running mate—and also consider how that choice will be vetted.

History is littered with veep candidates who hurt the campaigns they were picked to help—largely because of a hasty selection that forced a rushed research job and/or avoidable political miscalculation. From 1972's Tom Eagleton (electroshock treatments) to 1988's Dan Quayle (Vietnam-era service issues) to 2008's Sarah Palin (where to begin?), the dangers of tossing an inadequately vetted running mate into the national meat-grinder are well recognized.

The established rules of the game require answers to questions covering finances for the candidate, spouse, and children; medical records, marital history, religion, illegal drug use, sexual impropriety, and writings and statements—all backstopped by teams of lawyers, accountants, doctors, and political strategists who report to the nominee. Prevaricators need not apply.

"The process has to be fair and transparent and open, and the candidate himself needs to interview his shortlist—and George W. did not interview his shortlist," says former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, who was on Bush's 2000 shortlist but lost out to chief vetter Dick Cheney, whom Keating suspects of leaking damaging personal information that he gave Cheney in good faith (Cheney denies leaking). Keating advises Romney to make sure his vetter isn't putting a thumb on the scale.

The process is riskier than ever in 2012, when anyone with a laptop can tweet a rumor and watch it go viral. The increasing dominance of the Internet and the spread of social media have rendered the news cycle a perpetual loop. Instantly accessible video, to say nothing of instantaneously searchable information and misinformation, are driving further adjustments in the process.

"The whole notion of what makes a good presidential and vice-presidential team has changed," says one of several veteran vetters who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It used to be about balance. It used to be about geographic and demographic categories. And now, just like everything else, it's all been nationalized. It's no longer an inside game; it's about running an outside game."

Romney might pick a partner based on general-election strategy; Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a former budget director, could reinforce Romney's Mr. Fixit economic credentials, for instance. But he must ensure that his choice is seen by voters as a credible potential president. That is, no high-risk Palins or Quayles.

"America has a changing view of where the threshold definition of 'qualified to be president' is," says a vice-presidential vetter. "But to be anywhere near the line of 'not qualified' is like playing with explosives."

There is a premium on secrecy—both to protect the dignity of the also-rans and to get the biggest bang from the official announcement. Preventing leaks, however, is near impossible. As of this moment, the Romney camp is opting for silence. "We aren't commenting about the VP process now," says a spokeswoman, "nor will we talk about it if we earn the nomination."