Starting Gate: The Mating Dance Begins

He doesn't have the nomination yet but Barack Obama is beginning the process that will eventually determine who he selects as his running mate. Obama has called on Democratic veteran Jim Johnson for advice on the process, reports CBS News chief political consultant Marc Ambinder, and wants the pieces in place to begin the process on June 4th – the day after the final primary contests. Johnson has run the selection process for past nominees, including John Kerry in 2004.

Meanwhile, John McCain will spend part of his Memorial Day weekend socializing with three politicians high up on his list of possible running mates. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will be among a group of visitors to McCain's Arizona home. McCain aides insist vice presidential vetting is not on the agenda but the presence of three men certain to be on his short list is tantalizing nonetheless.

As the vice presidential mating dances begin, let's review a few ground rules helpful in watching the process. First, vice presidential selections are among the most tightly-held secrets in politics. When anyone says they know who the pick for either candidate is, they almost certainly don't.

Second, lists exits for a reason. Even if they don't originate from the campaigns themselves, it's nearly impossible for the eventual choices not to be included on lists compiled by the media. Because of this, the press provides a service for the campaigns by conducting at least part of the vetting process for them. Local reporters, who know their politicians best, will provide a public list of plusses and minuses, raising sticky issues of individuals and covering the general reaction to their prospects. How each potential pick is received by various groups and interests will be an important part of the process.

Third, the true "short lists" are often much shorter than most of those compiled publicly. A tremendous amount of time and energy will be spent talking and poking around politicians who, in reality, have little to no chance of being selected. Remember, the campaigns aren't the only ones with an interest in publicly vetting some candidates. Politicians of all stripes would love to have that one line in their future bios: He/she was considered a possible running mate for candidate X. Likewise, many candidates will have their own cheerleaders among ideological or other groups in order to boost their causes.

So, sit back and enjoy the show. But keep in mind that these decisions are part art and part science and that the number of factors that go into them are many and varied. And for all the cloak and dagger, the reality is much less mysterious than it seems.