WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is probably right: He's not going to be Mitt Romney's running mate.
With the Republican presidential nominee set to announce his pick as early as this week, the Rubio buzz has fallen precipitously from a feverish peak a couple months ago. It's hard to find anyone who thinks he's a serious contender.
In the hyper-guessing game consuming Washington, Rubio has slipped behind "safer" picks such as Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal or the latest wildcard, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Wait. "No way Mitt will pick Condi as his No. 2," declared a New York Daily News headline.
Everyone has an opinion; only a few really know.
But even if he's passed over, Rubio has enjoyed the "veepstakes" benefits.
The 41-year-old Floridian has spent months in the media glare, selling even more copies of his new memoir and drawing big crowds on an accompanying bus tour. Cable news shows have carried him into homes nationwide.
And Rubio will have a prominent speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in Tampa next month. In 2004, a young state senator from Illinois used his speech at the Democratic convention as a breakout moment putting him on a trajectory that ended at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
"I can think of few worse fates for Marco Rubio than to actually have to be somebody's No. 2," said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and Rubio confidant. "I think Marco's voice and status is stronger as his own. I would love to see Marco be in the Senate and continue growing in seniority and chalk up some legislative accomplishments."
"Every time I've spoken to Marco in the last month about the vice presidency, he has been very direct that he was not expecting to do it," Navarro said.
Only Romney and a few of his most trusted aides, primarily Beth Myers, who is in charge of the vetting, know who will get the nod. Ask Rubio allies if they have been contacted by the Romney campaign and you get something like this:
"I don't want to talk about that," said Al Cardenas, who helped Rubio get his political start years ago in Miami and is now chairman of the American Conservative Union.
If Romney is vetting Rubio, he has not left footprints in an obvious spot: Tallahassee, where Rubio served nine years in the House, including two as speaker. No one from the Romney campaign — or anyone else this year — has requested documents from the House.
A Democratic super PAC, American Bridge 21st Century, last year put in a sweeping public records request on Rubio and recently posted a 550-page "oppo report" on him, detailing virtually every vote he took and other issues, including questions surrounding Rubio's use of a GOP credit card and campaign funds — issues reported by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald during Rubio's 2010 Senate race.
Those and other factors — including a flap over when Rubio's parents arrived from Cuba — would come into play with Romney and may make Rubio seem risky, though none of that has yet stunted his rise.
A Times/Herald/Bay News 9 poll of Florida voters last week showed Rubio was the most popular politician in the survey. Fifty-one percent of voters have a favorable view of him and only 19 percent view him unfavorably. But adding Rubio to the ticket would only marginally help Romney in Florida.
There's even a question of how seriously Rubio was considered.
ABC News reported last month that Rubio was not being vetted, setting off a wild day in which Romney broke protocol to say Rubio was under consideration.
He still remains the popular favorite, topping VP polls among activists. During a weekend retreat of top fundraisers in Utah last month, donors were pressing Romney to consider him, according to people who attended. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Karl Rove and Sen. Mitch McConnell have talked up Rubio, but the paper did not include him in a list of likely frontrunners. Romney is said to value experience, something Rubio lacks at a national level.
Rubio has for months, in interview after interview, said he would not be the running mate. But that's a common response among short listers, Joe Biden included. They all play it down. Rubio answers have evolved as Romney's decision has neared.
• May 1, 2011: Meet the Press: "No, I'm not going to be on a ticket in 2012 ... Under no circumstances."
• Oct. 5, 2011: Washington Ideas Forum. "The answer is going to probably be no," he said then corrected himself, smiling, "The answer is going to be no."
• March 7 Tampa Bay Times: Are you campaigning for VP? (laughs) "I don't even know how you do that. No." Are you still categorically ruling that out? "Yes. I'm not going to be the vice president."
• April 19 National Journal forum: "If in four to five years, if I do a good job as vice president — I'm sorry, as senator — (laughter) I'll have the chance to do all sorts of things."
• June 19: Fox News: "I don't want to talk about the process. I haven't up to this point. It's Gov. Romney's process and I want to be respectful of that."
Like everyone in Romney's circle — the ones who know what is going on — Rubio is now mute.
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.