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Fantasy Veepstakes

Dotty Lynch is the Senior Political Editor for CBS News. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points

By every account John Kerry has a short list of VP prospects who are being vetted by his campaign. They include John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and a handful of other Democrats. Neither Hillary Clinton nor John McCain is on the list.

But despite that – and the fact that Clinton would magnify Kerry's image as a northeastern liberal, while McCain would drive the Democratic base nuts with his free trade, pro-life policies – the chatterers in and out of the media can't quite come to terms with that reality. Kerry himself told reporters that, even though pollsters keep putting her name on lists of Veep candidates, Sen. Clinton had told him to count her out. McCain, after one little slip on morning television a few months ago, has said over and over that he is not interested, that he's supporting George W. Bush and running for reelection to the Senate as a Republican from Arizona.

So why does a newspaper as respected as the New York Times run a front-page story on John McCain a possible Veep candidate, citing as "prominent Democrats" former Sen. Bob Kerrey and spin-meister Chris Lehane? Maybe because "prominent Democrats" (possibly some of whom work for The New York Times?) wouldn't let their names be used or because the Times knows that McCain-mania sells newspapers and Tom Vilsack may not—at least for now.

The Iowa governor, who refrained from endorsing Kerry for president before the caucuses, has made his way onto the real Kerry short list because he fits a category – Midwest governor – and because, unlike Kerry, he is from a humble background, so humble it sounds like a bad country-western song. Born of an unwed mother who placed him in an orphanage, he was then was adopted and beaten by an alcoholic mother. And just when she straightened out, his father died of a heat attack. Vilsack went into politics after witnessing the shooting of the mayor of his town and then running to replace him. He stayed in politics after his brother-in-law urged him not to quit, one day before he too died of a heart attack.

Before becoming governor, Vilsack was a successful trail lawyer, although, according to his aides, not a rich one, and thus has no financial skeletons. The trial lawyer who did make a lot of money, Sen. John Edwards, remains in the wings while the process runs its course. Edwards left a good vibe after his primary race and continues to be the most popular real VP candidate among voters. Reporters like covering him and the dean of political reporters, David Broder, said last week that Edwards' "Two Americas" speech was the "single most powerful message anyone delivered in the Democratic primaries." He is in demand by Democratic candidates and state parties who want him to spread his optimistic populist message at the campaign stops and fundraisers.

Dick Gephardt is the safe, solid choice according to the insiders who say he's been tried and tested. Teamster President Jim Hoffa says he told Kerry that he should choose Gephardt but said he likes Edwards, too. One of the arguments that you hear often is that Gephardt could help Kerry carry Missouri, but his forays outside his suburban St Louis district in two presidential races have not been impressive. Bread and butter Democrats like him, but his odd break from them to solidarity with GWB in the Rose Garden on the Iraq resolution in 2002 disappointed many on the left.

The assets of other real candidates are obvious: Bob Graham gives you foreign policy expertise and possibly Florida; Wesley Clark reinforces the military side; Evan Bayh is another – but younger – Midwesterner who thrills the DLCers; and Bill Richardson has both foreign policy credentials and popularity with Hispanics. Undoubtedly, the vetting process has found some liabilities for all these candidates as well.

Former Rep Geraldine Ferraro, who knows something about VP vetting and chief vetter Jim Johnson, has been offering advice to the campaign. No, not to pick another woman, but to pick someone soon. There are some good reasons to wait – making sure the vetting and research are complete, picking a time when the money is low and a free media pop would help, and having a group of eager wannabes campaign and fundraise their hearts out to prove their worth.

But letting fantasy candidates stay out there does a disservice to the real ones and could diminish the ticket when the big announcement is made. Sen. Joe Biden, perhaps in a fit of pique that he is not on the short list, also joined the McCain chorus and complained that there is a fixation in Kerryland about choosing someone who could help win the Midwest or the South. Duh.

Voters expecting McCain or Hillary are not going to be happy with Tom Vilsack even if he has a great story. And charismatic John Edwards starts to looks less exciting because he's not a Republican war hero. And Dick Gephardt was never first lady. Kerry might do himself some good by making the announcement sooner rather than later or at least by bringing the chatterers down to earth and out of fantasyland.

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