When you try to talk with McCain staffers about vice-presidential prospects, as I did over the weekend, the normally garrulous become guarded and the usually talkative turn taciturn. Still, here's what I was able to discern.
John McCain apparently intends to announce his pick after the Democratic convention.
There's been thought given to announcing McCain's selection the day after Barack Obama's Thursday night Aug. 28 acceptance speech, to try to minimize Obama's post-convention bounce. But the current inclination is to wait until after Labor Day weekend, which ends with President Bush's speech on Monday, the first night of the GOP convention.
Then the McCain camp would hope to seize attention Tuesday with the VP announcement. A strong pick, followed by the VP nominee's remarks on Wednesday and then McCain's speech on Thursday, could provide a good launch into the last 60 days of the campaign.
So, who would be a strong pick? Some VP candidates fit one theory of the campaign, others another. And there seem to be at least four competing theories in the McCain camp, which, while not entirely mutually exclusive, point in different vice-presidential directions.
1. We're going to defeat Obama straight up.
If McCain is ahead of or close to Obama in the polls, there will be a strong temptation to do no harm with the VP choice.
The leading noncontroversial selections — broadly acceptable to Republicans, conservative but not too conservative, young but not too young — are Tim Pawlenty, the second-term governor of Minnesota, and Rob Portman, former Ohio congressman, Bush trade representative and budget director.
2. We need to accentuate Obama's key vulnerability — inexperience.
If McCain's central theme is going to be that he's ready and Obama isn't, he needs a running mate who reinforces that message — someone experienced who'd be seen as ready to govern. This points to former rival Mitt Romney, whom McCain has come to respect, or former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, whom McCain likes. It's true that Ridge is pro-choice, which might be a problem. Or could the pick of Ridge signal to independents that McCain is broadening the party, while pro-lifers could be reassured that Ridge would defer to President McCain in this area?
3. Don't fight the public desire for change; co-opt it.
The public wants change but is nervous about Obama. Why not allow people to vote for experience and the next generation of leadership at the same time?
This implies a young and different VP: the 37-year-old governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal; 44-year-old Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska; or Eric Cantor, the 45-year-old Virginia congressman. Party pros would have fainting spells about the unseasoned Jindal and Palin in particular — but party pros are often wrong, and if Jindal or Palin performed well as candidates, the upside would be considerable.
The two young governors also have this advantage: They're very popular with conservatives, especially social conservatives. And they're real reformers. They've begun to do in Baton Rouge and Juneau what many voters would like to see done in Washington. Principled conservatism and vigorous reform could be a winning combination.
4. The public is really sick of politics as usual in Washington.
In his convention speech, McCain could say something like this:
“I will give you a reform administration that will put politics aside to work for all Americans. I pledge to turn the page on 16 years of often petty and mean-spirited partisanship so we can tackle the big challenges we face. So I pledge that neither I nor my vice president will seek re-election. Neither I nor my vice president will spend a day, an hour, a minute campaigning or raising money — not for ourselves nor for anyone else. There will be no political office in my White House — there will be no place for a Dick Morris, or (with all due respect) a Karl Rove.”
This opens up several unconventional VP possibilities. They include some who would reinforce the notion of a war presidency above politics, like Sen. Joe Lieberman and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Or perhaps someone with economic or domestic policy expertise — like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, old McCain friend and FedEx CEO Fred Smith or new McCain insider and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman.
Most of the campaign staff strongly prefers a selection from the first two categories — do no harm or reinforce experience. McCain, on the other hand, is intrigued by the bolder possibilities of youth or bipartisanship.
He could be especially intrigued by Sarah Palin and Meg Whitman. I run into plenty of moderate and conservative women who don't consider themselves feminists but would be pleased to see a qualified woman on the ticket.
Especially if Obama picks a man, rejecting hope and change in favor of the same old patriarchy — won't McCain be tempted to say: cherchez la femme?