A person familiar with the campaign's planning noted that Obama's schedule at the end of this week is open, but said the announcement could come "as late as the weekend."
Obama and his inner circle have held his intentions tightly, while a wider circle of aides in Chicago has been kept far enough out of the loop that they’re willing to speculate freely on the possible choice.
There are plenty of tea leaves to read: Obama’s schedule next week takes him through the home states of a few possible contenders: He’s spending Monday in New Mexico (Governor Bill Richardson) and Wednesday in Virginia (Governor Tim Kaine and former Governor Mark Warner).
Saturday, Obama cited former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, 69, as a particularly wise advisor, touching off a wave of speculation.
There’s also a chance that the Summer Olympics, which run through next Sunday, could push the campaign to delay the move until the beginning of the Democratic National Convention the next day.
As a candidate whose currency has been his personal story, in choosing his running mate, Obama will also be choosing a narrative.
He can select someone whose life story mirrors his own, like Kaine, a fellow young Washington outsider and internationalist by biography—he was a missionary in Honduras—and a former civil rights lawyer. Or he can choose an old Washington hand like Nunn who will add a sense of gravity to the ticket. His pick can send a message of racial reconciliation—one Democrat suggested he introduce Joe Biden as his “clean, articulate” choice, the cringe-inducing words the Delaware senator intended as praise for Obama in February.
Or he could use the pick to underscore his own early opposition to the Iraq war ,which Nunn—alone among the candidates most mentioned—also opposed.
“I just get the sense with Obama that he has a clear set priorities in his own mind that have nothing to do with ups-and-downs of the campaign,” said a Democratic consultant, Dan Gerstein, who thinks Obama’s focus on generational change doesn’t preclude him picking an older, more seasoned running mate.
“It won’t be dictated by age,” he speculated. “He doesn’t need someone who is young but it’s got to be someone who is not part of the baby boom, partisan culture wars of the 1990s.”
At the same time, though, Obama has a more immediate concern: reassuring those voters who might vote for him but have thus far remained skeptical of his candidacy—older working-class white Democrats; Independents; some Republicans—that he’s a safe, acceptable choice.
“The vice-presidential pick is always more about telling voters what kind of a potential president the nominee will be, and it’s even more important for Obama than it has been for past nominees,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant. “Obama's central challenge in this election is to make a certain group of voters comfortable with him in terms of who he is as it relates to being able to do the job. And the vice presidential pick—along with the convention and debates—stands as one of the three tent-foundation events in the general to connect with voters about who he is.”
Despite a steady drone of speculation, little is actually known about Obama’s considerations. Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd is the only aspirant to confirm he’s being vetted by Obama’s search team, led by Caroline Kennedy and Eric Holder. Kaine has told associates he’s being vetted, but has not publicly confirmed it. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius at first denied it, then ceased denying it—which was seized on as evidence that she is being considered. Biden and Indina Senator Evan Bayh have declined to comment on whether they’re being vetted, but are widely thought to be under consideration.
Two Republicans who are close to Obama, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar and Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel have also been mentioned, and Lugar—whom Obama cited along with Nunn at the nationally televised candidates forum on Saturday as someone whose counsel he would value if elected president—drew attention on CNN Sunday by defending Obama against attacks from Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman.
A former top aide to Senator Hillary Clinton, Howard Wolfson, recently suggested that Massachusetts Senator and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry was under consideration. And while most chatter around Clinton’s own name has died down, some of her supporters are holding out hope.
Others once considered likely picks have explicitly ruled themselves out, notably Ohio Governor Ted Strickland and Virginia Senator Jim Webb. (The name of Warner, who is running for Senate, continues to surface despite his saying in June that he would not accept the slot if it were offered to him.)
Strickland and Webb both opposed the American invasion of Iraq, as did Obama, who has cast the decision on whether or not to support the war as the central test of judgment in American politics.
Curiously, then, all but one of those considered to be Obama’s most likely vice presidential choices initially supported the then-popular decision to go to war.
Anti-war Democrats were quick to note last week that Bayh chaired—with Senator John McCain—the pro-war Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Biden, too, voted to authorize the war.
Nunn, however, opposed it, and also opposed President George H.W. Bush’s 1991 war with Iraq.
Some Democrats, however, raised questions about Nunn’s appeal as a running mate. Paul Begala, Bill Clinton’s former adviser, said “major alarm bells” went off on Saturday when Obama mentioned Nunn.
Nunn, who helped sink the Clinton administration’s plans to integrate gays into the military in 1993, was “more confrontational about that issue than Jesse Helms and more adamant about discriminating against gay people,” Begala said.
And then there’s Clinton. Neither she nor Obama has given any hint she’s being seriously considered, but Obama’s decision to give her a formal roll call vote at the convention seemed to some to be a hint that the biggest head fake in American political history was underway.
“Look there’s no way this is going to happen, but I’ve been getting this weird feeling that he might pick her,” a former Clinton aide. “If they were trying to fool us, to have us rule her out completely to maximize the pop—wouldn’t this be the way that they do it?”
A Clinton insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Clinton has been telling friends “that she’s not particularly interested in this at all… and has really moved on.”
If Obama were planning an August surprise, Clinton and her husband would have to be kept in the dark to keep her sieve-like inner circle from leaking the news, a former Clinton fundraiser conceded.
The vice presidential nominee is expected to address the Democratic National Convention in Denver a week from Wednesday. Obama’s campaign has told supporters that the announcement will be made by text message—a move that allows the campaign to gather supporters cellular phone numbers, for future use in organizing.
How Obama makes his pick, Lehane said, may be almost as important as whom he chooses.
“Whatever Obama does, this next week needs to appear very well planned, staged, thought out and coherent,” he said. “ In other words, the bar will be set high by voters looking for comfort in how he makes decisions—but it should be a high bar he has complte control over.”
Additional reporting by Carrie Budoff Bown.