While the vice presidential slot may be John McCain’s best means of wooing those Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters who remain loath to embrace Barack Obama, the Republican party is a thin source of politically viable women, leaving McCain with few top-tier options.
The most-mentioned potential running mates — former Republican candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — are all men. Yet no clear front-runner has emerged, and there are at least three women McCain might select to fill out the ticket. All three would mark a symbolic turn away from Vice President Dick Cheney, the ultimate D.C. old-boys-club insider.
One obvious choice is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She’s as near to Cheney on policy as she is far from him symbolically. Rice, however, has consistently denied interest. While such denials are par for the course for prospective veeps, if Rice is indeed out of the mix, that would leave McCain with three other likely female running mates to consider:
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin may be nationally unknown, but in her state she is nothing short of a political phenomenon.
Palin, 44, would add youth to the GOP ticket. As governor she has shown a willingness to veto some of the state’s large capital projects, no small plus for fiscal conservatives. But it’s her personal biography, which excites social conservatives, and reformist background that might most appeal to McCain.
She’s stridently anti-abortion, and recently brought to term her fifth child — who she knew would have Down syndrome. A hunter, fisher and family woman with a rapid professional rise, Palin is a natural for Republican framing.
In 1982, Palin led her underdog high school basketball team to the state championship, earning the nickname “Sarah Barracuda.” Two years later she won the beauty pageant in her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska — and was also named “Miss Congeniality.” By her early thirties, she was the mayor of Wasilla.
In 2003, as ethics commissioner on the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, she risked her rising political star by resigning her position in protest of ethical misconduct within the state’s Republican leadership as well as then-Gov. Frank Murkowski’s acceptance of that impropriety. Though this briefly made her an outcast within the party, within a year several state Republican heavyweights were reprimanded for the conduct she’d decried.
Her reputation with the party thus redeemed, Palin defeated Murkowski in the 2006 Republican primary on the way to being elected governor.
As governor, she’s continued challenging the state’s powers that be, even winning tax increases on oil companies’ profits. Her approval rating has soared as high as 90 percent, making her one of America’s most popular governors.
“Palin is becoming a star in the conservative movement, a fiscal conservative in a state that is looking like a boondoggle for pork barrel spending,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who specializes in women’s politics.
“She’s young, vibrant, fresh and now, and a new mother of five. She should be in the top tier,” Conway continued. “If the Republican Party wants to wrestle itself free from the perception that it is royalist and not open to putting new talent on the bench, this would be the real opportunity.”
But several top Republican Party leaders, who asked that their names be withheld so they could speak frankly about vice presidential options, said that Palin remains out of the top tier for now. “Too unknown and inexperienced,” said one GOP insider. Others pointed out that she is not only based far from the continental 48 — and in a state with just three electoral votes that should already be in the bag forthe GOP — but also has no foreign policy credentials or experience.
Carly Fiorina has an up-by-her-own-bootstraps success story, having worked her way from a start as a young secretary straight through the glass ceiling to become Hewlett-Packard’s chief executive from 1999 to 2005. She presently serves as the chair of the organization tasked by the Republican National Committee with preparing the party’s crucial get-out-the-vote operation. It’s no symbolic post, but a crucial position for a party facing an uphill presidential contest.
Along with eBay.com CEO Meg Whitman — who has also been brought up occasionally as a long-shot GOP vice presidential prospect — Fiorina is one of the most prominent female executives of the last decade.
Fiorina is also already close to McCain. The two of them recently sat down at his Arlington headquarters with frustrated Clinton supporters and urged them to shift their political allegiance to him. On the campaign trail and on shows like CBS News “Face the Nation,” she’s served as a ubiquitous advocate of the candidate. Privately, she has also become one of McCain’s most trusted economic advisers.
Grover Norquist, a fiscal conservative leader and longtime party organizer, touts Fiorina’s economic and executive bonafides but labeled her a “dark horse” vice presidential prospect. One Republican state party chairman said, “everybody would be very pleasantly surprised with her” before adding that “the danger is that she hasn’t been vetted” — a concern echoed by several GOP insiders.
These insiders also expressed concern that adding her to the ticket would do little to galvanize social conservatives, some of whom still view McCain with suspicion and antipathy. They also brought up her lack of foreign policy experience, and expressed concern that her reputation as “the most powerful woman in business” — as she was once called by Forbes magazine — could prove a dubious distinction at a time when economic anxiety is reaching levels unseen since the late 1970s.
While McCain has criticized excessive executive salaries, Obama spokesman Bill Burton has already issued a statement pointing out that she “presided over thousands of layoffs at Hewlett-Packard while receiving a $21 million severance package” when she was fired by the company’s board of directors in 2005.
Kay Bailey Hutchison
Last week Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the longest-tenured female Republican senator, joined McCain for a fundraising sprint in the Lone Star state. Hutchison, who until recently headed the Senate Republican Conference, now serves as chairwoman of the Republican Policy Committee, two top Beltway party posts.
Hutchison had already engaged on McCain’s behalf, defending his embrace of the controversial conservative Pastor John Hagee earlier this year and making the rounds as a surrogate on the Sunday political shows (including an appearance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week”), though, like McCain, it’s a medium that does not suit her. And also like McCain, she is not a gifted campaigner.
In Texas, where she has been comfortably reelected, one Republican strategist notes that she’s “proven she can get scores of Hispanics in a huge state surrogate.”
“She’s underused as a surrogate to the party,” the strategist added.
But despite her popularity in the state and in the party and her years of experience, insiders are skeptical she’ll be selected. Like Alaska, Texas is already a solidly Republican state in presidential races. And adding Hutchison — who supports embryonic stem cell research and is relatively moderate on abortion (she is against outlawing the procedure, though she also opposes federal funding for it) — to the ticke would also alienate some social conservatives.
And then there’s the energy problem. Hutchison has long been a defender of Big Oil, which may make political sense locally but could prove a liability in a national race at a time when oil companies are enjoying record profits even as Americans pay record amounts at the pump.
Insofar as Hutchison, Palin or Fiorina are seriously considered, the question McCain's team may first have to answer is how much of a premium to place on gender.
Then there is the media factor. McCain himself aches for the favorable attention of a press corps he feels prefers his rival. The vice presidential pick is one of the few remaining set pieces that will ensure him the spotlight, and could build excitement about his candidacy. And as even Republicans are noting, they could use a bit of excitement.