Running mate sweepstakes get underway

Obama keeping the process quiet

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Foon Rhee
Globe Staff / May 23, 2008

Let the vice presidential sweepstakes begin.

Senator Barack Obama, who is within reach of the Democratic nomination, is reported to be quietly starting his search, tapping the same party veteran to lead the vetting process who ran the search for John F. Kerry four years ago.

Senator John McCain, who has already clinched the Republican nomination, will be socializing at his Arizona ranch starting today with at least three possible running mates, including former rival Mitt Romney.

Their picks will be closely scrutinized - both for how they could affect their electoral prospects and what they say about the nominees themselves.

"The vice presidential pick is really the first presidential-level decision that a candidate makes," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who was deeply involved in Al Gore's selection of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate in 2000.

Lehane said nominees will consider whether a person would reinforce their key message, and would balance the ticket either geographically, on issues, or with constituencies.

But, he said, "far and away the transcendent criteria" should be "someone you believe can do the job on a moment's notice if called upon."

Democratic officials told the Associated Press that Obama has enlisted former Fannie Mae CEO Jim Johnson to begin vetting potential vice presidential picks. Johnson, a vice chairman of the Obama campaign, did the same in 2004 for Kerry, who picked former senator John Edwards, and in 1984 for Walter Mondale, who selected Geraldine Ferraro.

Obama is within 61 delegates of clinching the nomination, but is keeping the vetting process under wraps because Hillary Clinton is still steadfastly running against him.

"They have to be exceedingly careful about looking presumptuous in this process. Unifying the party will be predicated on how the winner wins, how the loser loses," said Lehane, who is not working for a campaign but supports Clinton.

Obama, however, has to balance that with having enough time to fully vet possible picks, said Lehane, citing disastrous last-minute selections through history.

Obama refused yesterday to acknowledge Johnson's role. "I am not commenting on vice presidential matters because I have not won this nomination," he told the AP.

The Illinois senator has adamantly refused to discuss who might be on his short list. But names bandied about include Governors Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, and Tim Kaine of Virginia, and Senators Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Joe Biden of Delaware, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Jim Webb of Virginia.

And, of course, there has been constant discussion about the possible "dream ticket" of Obama and Clinton, including reports yesterday quoting confidantes of former president Bill Clinton that he is pushing for Obama to offer the slot to her.

Lehane, like many other Democrats, doubts that will happen, saying that picking Clinton would "on some level undermine the Obama brand."

He also mentioned as possible candidates former senator Bob Graham of Florida, and two Clinton supporters, Governor Ted Strickland of Ohio and Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana.

On the Republican side, Lehane mentioned Senator Olympia Snowe and former senator Bill Cohen, both of Maine, along with Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota.

Governors Charlie Crist of Florida and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana are also scheduled to attend what McCain's aides insist will be a social gathering.

Romney is on many a short list for McCain's running mate, given his economic expertise and support among conservatives. But in an interview with The Wall Street Journal published yesterday, Romney downplayed that speculation.

"Senator McCain will make his own assessment and I don't have any insight on that at all," Romney said. "Frankly, I'm not expecting that. I think that call is very unlikely and my plans are consistent with being a supporter of the ticket, not a member of it."

The former Massachusetts governor also tried to knock down talk that he is auditioning for a spot on the ticket.

"I'm doing now what the McCain campaign asks me to do. I'm not doing TV appearances other than those that they ask me to do. I'm not doing events around the country other than those he asks me to do," said Romney, who has also launched a new political action committee to help Republican candidates, but that will also help keep his name in the mix.

While Romney isn't publicly promoting himself, Kevin Madden, his former campaign spokesman, made a case for his former boss on Fox News yesterday.

He said that Romney can help deliver states including Michigan and Nevada, while McCain is already doing well in Florida and Louisiana is a reliably Republican state. Madden also argued that by picking Romney, McCain could show he harbors no animosity and doesn't hold grudges.

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