Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gestures while delivering remarks at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, Monday, June 1, 2009. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
CNN-- It's that time in the presidential cycle again. Mitt Romney, presumptive GOP nominee, appoints a trusted adviser to lead his vice presidential search. The questionnaires are readied; the real level of interest of the contenders is gauged (and all public protestations of non-interest dutifully disregarded.)
The candidate's weaknesses are cataloged, both in battleground states and in key demographics. And maybe the candidate weighs in with a guideline or two for the search.
This time around, it's clear what one rule will be: The vice presidential nominee needs to be qualified to be president.
Just ask Steve Schmidt, John McCain's former campaign manager (now played by Woody Harrelson in HBO's "Game Change"), about that teensy detail that was, er, overlooked in the Sarah Palin pick.
"The reality of this process going forward is that Mitt Romney will run a very tight, very disciplined, very focused search process which will result in someone indisputably prepared to be president of the United States," he tells me. Further elaboration? Um, unnecessary.
It's worth mentioning that the Romney campaign faces some of the deficits that plagued McCain: a gender gulch and a lack of enthusiasm among much of the very conservative base. So it would be easy to pull a Palin, circa 2012 -- that is, look for an appealing, conservative female pol to excite the unexcited.
Except that it won't -- and shouldn't -- happen that way.
One reason: because Palin happened that way.
Another reason: The Romney campaign (and its candidate) are a different breed from Team McCain. "There's a very different culture," says another McCain alum. "Romney is analytical, data-driven and risk averse. McCain was the opposite of all of those things."
Think fearless fighter pilot in the cockpit versus a man at home in a conference room with spreadsheets.
And while the situations are somewhat similar, there are also some key differences in the political environment: It's not as bad for Republicans in 2012 as it was in 2008. The country had Bush fatigue; McCain was seen as offering a Bush third term. There was a massive fundraising deficit, which won't be the case this time around. And the McCain campaign culture itself was chaotic and often dysfunctional -- not so with the Romney folks.
The Romney search is being led by Beth Myers, a longtime adviser who some believe channels Romney as well as anyone. She's thorough and understands what the candidate is looking for, and who would make him comfortable. She and Romney also understand the process from the other end since he was vetted by McCain four years ago.
Most of all, of course, there is the obvious lesson learned from Palin: that the vice presidential pick needs to have a pre-existing base of expertise on a variety of issues. One of the many mistakes the McCain people have admitted is that they assumed that a sitting governor, by virtue of her position, would be up to the task of answering substantive questions of vital interest to the nation. "It's the threshold," says one former McCain adviser.
Well, at least it is now.
Sure, Romney will want a running mate who balances his weaknesses with conservatives and maybe can lend a hand in a key state or two. But post-Palin, the vice presidential nominee needs to be one thing more than anything else: competent, prepared and ready to lead. McCain's credibility went down the tubes when the 72-year-old candidate offered the slogan "America First," and then picked Palin as his potential successor.
McCain chose the Hail Mary; that's who he is. Romney won't do that. His choice will be more staid and more subdued -- and someone he knows he can work with across that conference table.
That might not be exciting, but it would be authentic. Which is exactly what Romney needs to be.