The Romney campaign played the media for a bunch of saps last week. After the Boston Globe revealed that Romney had continued to work for Bain Capital for several years longer than he claimed, they wanted to change the conversation. Talking about how Romney may have lied to either the Federal Election Commission or the Securities and Exchange Commission about his time with Bain is not what his campaign wanted to do.

So on Thursday they leaked to the Drudge Report that former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was at the top of his vice-presidential shortlist. The national media started chattering about this blatantly false claim. As Media Matters noted, ABC, NBC and the Wall Street Journal reported the Rice rumor as if it were a serious possibility. When Romney appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows he was asked about it.

The Beltway media have apparently never met any actual Republicans. Beltway Republicans are fiscal and social conservatives, but—being educated people—they are much less likely to oppose abortion rights and gay rights, and even less likely still to care deeply about the issues than are average Republican voters. Being too lazy to do any reporting on whether the Republican Party could conceivably nominate a pro-choice woman to be vice president—or to just read Game Change, which reports that John McCain and his staffers did not mind at all that Joe Lieberman is pro-choice but ultimately accepted that they could not pick him as McCain’s running mate because the Republican National Convention would be in revolt—pundits took this preposterous notion about Rice seriously.

ABC’s Jonathan Karl said that Drudge “has been accurate on Romney before.” Well, how is Drudge’s accuracy on previous vice-presidential selections? Not too good, as The American Spectator’s John Tabin points out: “Four years ago, Matt Drudge reported that Barack Obama was likely to select Evan Bayh as his running mate. Eight years ago, Drudge reported that John Kerry was likely to select Hillary Clinton as his running mate. Twelve years ago, Drudge reported that George W. Bush’s likely pick was Frank Keating.”

Romney has pledged to select a reliable conservative on social issues, and his campaign has privately reassured conservative pundits that this is the rare promise he will actually keep. “We’ve gotten assurance that he’ll stick to his pledge,” says Bryan Fischer, director of issue advocacy for the American Family Association. Erick Erickson, editor of the blog Red State, tweeted on the very night of Drudge’s report, “Multiple assurances from Team Romney tonight that Condi is not happening for Veep.”

“I’m guessing the Romney campaign leaked it as a trial balloon to see how social conservatives react,” Fischer speculates.

They reacted with horror. The word “non-starter” comes up repeatedly. “She’s a non-starter because she’s pro-abortion and soft on homosexual unions,” says Fischer.

“The former Secretary of State would be a non-starter choice mainly because she doesn’t fit the criteria that Governor Romney set for his VP pick,” wrote Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, in a statement. “During the primaries, Romney made very clear that his vice president would be pro-life, pro-marriage and a strong defender of religious liberty – and while Ms. Rice is many things, her record shows those three she is not. When you look at the Republican Party, there is no doubt that the pro-life position is a non-negotiable.”

Richard Viguerie, one of the founders of the Moral Majority, picking Rice would be a “slap in the face” to conservatives.

Romney has even less room to maneuver on social issues when choosing a running mate than McCain did. Besides his being a Mormon, Romney supported gay rights and abortion rights when he ran for office in Massachusetts. Evangelicals remained skeptical of him throughout the primaries. As long as the race was competitive, Romney was virtually guaranteed to lose the evangelical vote in each state to Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum.

Social conservative leaders also emphasize that they want to see the ticket balanced by adding a vociferous social conservative to balance Romney’s squishiness. “Romney needs an unapologetic and unwavering defender of the right to life and traditional marriage,” says Fischer. “He cannot afford a pro-abortion running mate. That’s suicidal. Social conservatives have enough doubts about him. He needs a running mate who strengthens his social conservatives.”

“Mitt Romney needs someone who undergirds the social policy positions that he has taken since he was governor of Massachusetts,” wrote Perkins. “He needs someone who has an impeccable pro-life record, not just someone who checks the ‘pro-life box.’ There are a number of better qualified individuals out there who have led on the life issues and would not deflate enthusiasm from his base.”

Which other rumored running mates would be considered too passive on social issues by the religious right? New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. “Christie is just not strong on the homosexual agenda,” says Fischer. “Mitch Daniels would be a disaster because he’s the guy who called for ‘a truce’ on social issues. If you call for a truce and the other side doesn’t, that’s not a truce, that’s surrender.”

Fischer’s top choices for vice president include Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA), Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Representative Allen West (R-FL). Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Baptist pastor who now hosts a weekend talk show on Fox News and a new radio program, was also mentioned favorably as a vice-presidential possibility by every source for this story. Huckabee also is being touted by conservative commentators such as Maggie Gallagher and unnamed social conservative leaders talking on background to newspapers.

Huckabee says, though, that he is not being vetted. "There’s no indication whatsoever that I’m even on the list of consideration," Huckabee told me. "I assume I’m not. I think if I had been, there would have been some inquiry at this point, there hasn’t been." 

Regarding Rice, Huckabee shares the concerns voiced by other conservatives. “I have great admiration for Condoleeza Rice, and I think she served her country well,” says Hucakbee. (Huckabee is always more diplomatic towards those he disagrees with than most conservative leaders.) “I do think her selection would be problematic for a number of conservatives. Governor Romney made it clear his vice-presidential selection would be a pro-life person. [Rice’s] comments in the past would make it very very difficult for people like me to be supportive. [I could be] supportive of her maybe as secretary of state or ambassador to any place, but not vice president.” Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention expressed a similar sentiment to CNN, saying, “I love Condi Rice, I’d love to see her in any role in Romney administration except vice president.”

Huckabee also issues a stern warning to Romney about the risk he would entail in picking someone who is not sufficiently conservative on social issues, although he avoids naming other names. “I think [Romney] is going to make his own decision and calculate the risk of picking someone who may cause the base of the party, which really is those social conservatives, to just not be that enthusiastic,” says Huckabee.

“What he can not risk, in my opinion, is anything less than high intensity. He needs someone who will rally those voters, not chill them. They’re highly motivated to replace Barack Obama. But I think it’s a great mistake to believe they’re automatically going to be as enthusiastic about knocking on doors and working phone banks if he were to place somebody in the position who wasn’t a stalwart leader and has all the credentials to give some comfort that those issues are not going to be set aside.”

Huckabee also suggested that a disappointing vice-presidential selection would signal to social conservatives that they will just be ignored after Romney has used them to win the election. “Conservatives have been burned way too many times,” says Huckabee. “Social conservatives get used every four years, trotted out at the rallies to stand there for five hours, scream and yell for the candidate, knock on doors, make the phone calls, carry signs. When the election is over, they’re promptly forgotten, put up in the attic and asked not to come out in public again for another four years. I think a lot of people have grown tired of that, so hopefully that’s not going to be the case this year.”