When begins his search for a vice presidential running mate, he'll quickly come upon a sad fact. He wants a candidate who will be seen as a plausible president. That's criterion number one. He also wants someone who won't subtract from his campaign in any serious way. That's criterion number two. The unfortunate truth is that few Republicans meet these simple criteria. McCain doesn't have much of a pool to choose from.
But his selection matters enormously, all the more because of his age. McCain will turn 72 on the eve of the Republican convention this summer. Choosing a running mate is the first major decision that a presidential nominee makes. And the nominee is judged by the quality of his pick and even by the smoothness of his selection process. So McCain had better choose well.
He has the right idea in mind. McCain thinks three vice presidential picks from the recent past were wise: Republican Dick Cheney in 2000 and Democrats Joe Lieberman in 2000 and Al Gore in 1992. They were nationally known political heavyweights who passed the most important test. They were accepted almost instantly as ready to replace the president if necessary. And they had no significant drawbacks.
The list of plausible presidents is short. Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Tom Ridge, and Joe Lieberman qualify. That's about it. There are a number of popular Republican governors - Charlie Crist of Florida, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Haley Barbour of Mississippi - but they fall short of Cheney-Lieberman-Gore stature. It's not their fault, but it's nonetheless true.
So how about Lieberman in 2008? He's a pal of McCain, a brave backer of the war in Iraq, and now the most prominent Democratic supporter of McCain's presidential bid. He would surely enhance McCain's appeal to independents and moderate Democrats. He's a political adult.
But he's no Zell Miller. Lieberman is a liberal on domestic issues, including abortion. McCain already has trouble with conservatives and picking a Democrat would make things worse. Lieberman would probably subtract more votes from the McCain ticket than he'd add.
So would Giuliani and Ridge. True, Giuliani was a hero of 9/11 as mayor of New York, and Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor, was President Bush's first homeland security chief. But both are pro-choice on abortion and would horrify social conservatives, an indispensable part of the Republican coalition. Giuliani or Ridge might prompt a third party pro-life presidential challenger.
Fred Thompson, the ex-senator from Tennessee and now a TV actor, is also a close friend of McCain. If he'd run a more spirited presidential campaign of his own this year, he'd be the obvious pick for running mate. But his campaign was dreary and disappointing. McCain needs someone more vibrant and upbeat.
That leads to Romney. He has run a vigorous national campaign and been vetted by the press and his opponents for the Republican nomination. These are very strong pluses. A pick who produces unhelpful surprises, as Geraldine Ferraro did in 1984 (her husband's business deals) and Dan Quayle did in 1988 (his National Guard duty), is exactly what McCain doesn't need. Romney is a known quantity.
Romney has three other add-ons. He's acceptable to conservatives and especially to social conservatives, who disproportionately volunteer as ground troops in Republican presidential campaigns. He's unflappable in debates. With the downturn worsening, the economy may surpass national security as the top issue of the campaign. And after years of success as a big time player in the global economy, Romney understands how markets work. He could shore up McCain's admitted weakness on economic issues.
Romney has allies in the Bush wing of the Republican party. President Bush favors him as McCain's veep. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, preferred Romney over McCain in the primaries, but never endorsed him publicly. Karl Rove, the president's political strategist, has hinted that he considers Romney to be McCain's best running mate.
Is there a downside to Romney? Possibly. It's not his Mormonism. He lost the nomination to McCain, but religion wasn't the reason. As a corporate turnaround artist, he rescued companies, sometimes by laying off workers. When he ran for the Senate from Massachusetts in 1994, the incumbent, Teddy Kennedy, raised the layoff issue with punishing effect. No doubt Democrats would use it again, and it might have resonance if a recession hits and unemployment is increasing.
Mike Huckabee's name is bound to come up in the veepstakes, since he's now run nationally and been vetted. According to Rove, he would "double" McCain's trouble with conservatives. Both foreign policy and economic conservatives would scream bloody murder if McCain chose the Huckster.
Presidential nominees once tried to balance their ticket with someone who'd helped win a state they might otherwise lose. This hasn't entirely gone out of fashion. Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota is often mentioned in this regard. Former House member John Kasich and ex-trade representative and budget director Rob Portman, both from Ohio, are too.
McCain has also been advised, at least by the media, to pick a much younger person for vice president. Governor Matt Blunt of Missouri, 37, and a handful of others have had their names trotted out. Some of them have impressive credentials. Blunt, for example, is an Annapolis graduate and a Naval Reservist called to active duty after 9/11.
But I don't believe the option of choosing a running mate for purely political reasons is open to McCain - not during wartime, anyway. His strong suit against, his likeliest Democratic opponent, or even against , is experience. In fact, Clinton has set up Obama to be attacked by McCain on this front.
Her TV ad raising doubts about Obama's readiness to be president was critical to her victories last week in the Ohio and Texas primaries. She also said in a campaign appearance: "Senator McCain will bring a lifetime of experience to the campaign. I will bring a lifetime of experience [to the White House] and Senator Obama will bring a speech he gave in 2002. I think that is a significant difference." In Obama's 2002 speech, he opposed the invasion of Iraq. One can envision her comment in a McCain TV ad zinging Obama.
McCain would throw away the experience issue if he named a much younger running mate or someone without national stature or a background in world affairs. Obama's response could be devastating: "If experience is so important, why did you pick a running mate who has so little, indeed less than I do?"
Romney thus appears to have the best ratio of virtues to drawbacks. But there's just one problem: McCain doesn't like him. Just how important compatibility is that is something McCain will have to decide.
By Fred Barnes
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