Just as Barack Obama and John McCain are making subtle and not-so-subtle moves toward the center in preparation for the general election, another group of candidates is also repositioning, apparently with an eye toward November: their prospective vice presidential running mates.
In ways both trivial and significant, even as they downplay their interest in the job, the politicians shortlisted for the vice presidential nomination seem to be making the adjustments widely perceived as necessary to preserve and enhance their chances of landing on either the McCain or Obama tickets.
In some cases, the fine-tuning has been as superficial as a new haircut. Minnesotans accustomed to Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s “hockey hair” noted its replacement by a more conventional, close-cropped cut this spring amid speculation about the governor’s national profile.
Yet the repackaging usually takes more substantive form, such as the reversal of a long-held but politically disadvantageous position or a bolstering of credentials.
One frequently mentioned vice presidential prospect, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who opposed offshore oil drilling in his 2006 campaign, raised eyebrows recently by becoming a convert to the cause not long after McCain’s own conversion on exploratory drilling.
Perhaps not by coincidence, Crist also recently announced his impending nuptials, removing what was widely thought to be one of the main obstacles in his path to the McCain ticket — his bachelorhood.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is another prospect who finds himself more in tune with McCain these days. Though one of McCain’s sharpest critics during their contentious primary tussle, he is now working the talk show circuit and campaign trail for his former foe.
Romney has even gone out of his way to laud McCain’s economic plan, which his campaign had dismissed as “McCainonomics.”
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, whose support for abortion rights is considered an impediment to his chances, recently reconciled his position with McCain’s opposition to abortion.
After "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace said “handicappers” consider abortion rights Ridge’s “biggest problem” in landing on McCain’s ticket, Ridge explained that “the vice president's job is to support — once a decision is made, whether it's on social issues, economic issues or diplomatic issues — the position of the president of the United States.”
Last month, Ridge filed overdue papers disclosing a contract he’s had for two years to lobby for Albania — work that may be just as damaging to his chances as his abortion stance, given McCain’s positioning as a reform-oriented candidate.
Meanwhile, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican recognized as a leading fiscal conservative, this year has taken more aggressive stances on social issues. He allowed a bill that created Christian "I believe" license plates to become law, signed legislation permitting the public posting of the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer, and signed another bill that required women seeking an abortion to first be told they can view an ultrasound of their fetus.
“Sanford’s never been a Republican who wears his social conservative values on his sleeve,” said Will Folks, a political consultant and blogger who worked as spokesman on Sanford’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign. “He went someplace that he probably wouldn’t have gone on those social issues were it not for the vice presidential speculation.”
Republican vice presidential contenders aren’t the only ones making moves that appear calculated to augment their chances.
Former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, for instance, led the fight against President Bill Clinton’s push to allow openly gay mn and women to serve in the military. The resultant compromise — called “don’t ask, don’t tell” — is opposed by Obama, not to mention influential gay rights activists who are balking at speculation that Obama might tap Nunn.
But Nunn last month took steps to address that political vulnerability by suggesting that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy might be outdated.
“The policy was the right policy for the right time, and times change,” he told reporters. “I think [when] 15 years go by on any personnel policy, it’s appropriate to take another look at it — see how it’s working, ask the hard questions, hear from the military. Start with a Pentagon study,” he said, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Nunn, who has acknowledged removing two congressional aides for being gay, declined through a spokeswoman to comment to Politico on whether his shift was politically motivated.
Like Nunn, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has made moves that, whether intentional or not, enhance her vice presidential viability. Though often derided for her wooden speaking style, Sebelius has nevertheless emerged as a vigorous campaign trail advocate for Obama. A moderate back home in Republican Kansas — she has twice selected Republicans to run on her ticket as lieutenant governor — Sebelius has taken a sharper tone as an Obama surrogate, going so far as to assert that Republicans would use Obama’s racial background against him.
Yet for all the vice presidential maneuvering in both parties, said John Baick, a modern American history professor at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass., there’s not a lot any of the vice presidential hopefuls can do to boost their chances at this point in the campaign.
In fact, in the near term, it’s more likely VP hopefuls will hurt, rather than help, their own chances, he said, citing Obama backer Wesley Clark’s controversial remarks about McCain’s military service — comments that some saw as evidence of Clark’s interest in a spot on the ticket.
“One slip of the tongue, one ill-considered decision or one past act could knock them off the list,” Baick said.