WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney's vice presidential search has entered a new phase: auditions.
As his campaign evaluates potential running mates, Republicans with a possible shot at the No. 2 spot on the ticket are starting to engage in unofficial public tryouts for the traditional vice presidential role of attack dog.
Democratic President Barack Obama is "the most ill-prepared person to assume the presidency in my lifetime," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said in a speech in Kentucky this week. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told South Carolina Republicans that Obama is the most "divisive figure in modern American history."
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, speaking Tuesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library -- a favorite venue for Republicans seeking more attention -- said Obama "wants to take us further in the wrong direction." In Alabama this month, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called Obama "the most incompetent president since Jimmy Carter."
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Not that any of them -- or any of the others who may have landed a spot on Romney's list -- are talking about becoming vice president. Nor are any acknowledging that they're trying out for the role or saying the Romney campaign has asked them to do so. Top Romney aides are sworn to secrecy, as are potential running mates and their staffs.
But their high-profile appearances come more than a month after Romney assumed, for all practical purposes, leadership of the Republican Party. His vice presidential search is well under way: His Boston headquarters is engaged in a secretive process of weighing the pros and cons of each potential pick.
With three months to go until the Republican National Convention, his campaign has little time to waste as it meticulously prepares the presumptive Republican nominee to make one of his most important decisions.
Knowledge of the process is limited to a few of Romney's highest-level aides. Information is on a "need-to-know" basis -- and as far as those aides are concerned, few people inside the Boston headquarters at 585 Commercial St., let alone reporters or other outsiders, need to know.
The process is so secret because it's so sensitive. A vice presidential vetting is possibly the most intense background check in politics. Everything is fair game.
"You're sitting down with someone and asked if they've ever had a marital problem, if their spouse has ever cheated on them, if they've ever sought mental-health counseling -- that's just the beginning," said Sara Fagen, who worked for President George W. Bush and for Romney's 2008 presidential campaign.