The vice-presidential sweepstakes is perhaps one of the least understood and most complicated of Washington rituals.
There's a flurry of trial balloons, leaked short lists, and the dispatching of envoys to search high and low for a suitable mate. Even decisionmakers seldom know what they're doing until the last minute.
This year, if the coming fall race is as tight as pundits believe, the value added from a strong running mate could be more important than ever.
"Because this is such a close race, the vice president may be more consequential," says political scientist Steven Schier at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
For example, polls this week indicate a ticket teaming Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain would easily best Vice President Al Gore.
Mr. McCain has repeatedly said he is not seeking the vice presidency and would not accept an offer from Mr. Bush. The two are, however, scheduled to meet in one week to discuss "campaign strategy" - which has given rise to inevitable speculation.
The courtship is complicated, the calculus dizzying, the matches endless. The goal is picking as perfect a combination as possible.
"The first thing a campaign has to figure out is if they are doing a national or a state strategy," says Mr. Schier. The seldom-used state strategy targets running mates who could pull in big swing states. The national strategy aims to match two candidates with the broadest possible appeal.
Recent history suggests geography is not as important as it once was - after all, Bill Clinton, a Southern governor, successfully teamed up with Mr. Gore, a Southern senator, to win the White House for two consecutive terms.
Perhaps the oldest trick in the running-mate selection book is the public courting of contenders who have little chance of actually being tapped.
Campaigns float names of popular politicians in a region in an effort to gain votes there. The same strategy is sometimes applied to special-interest groups.
In a new twist on that technique, Gore this week tried to broaden his appeal beyond the Democratic Party, by saying he wouldn't rule out picking a Republican.
Both the Bush and Gore camps have search committees already under way, headed by former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney on the Republican side, and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher for the Democrats.
Yet despite the long process, the decision is often made in the final moments - and it can depend as much on personality and chemistry as on strategic consultation.
"Sparks flew," says John Anderson, the Independent Party candidate from the 1980 campaign, of his decision to pick former Wisconsin Gov. Patrick Lucy as his No. 2.
Mr. Anderson says a good running mate has to know the issues, have a national presence, do well in debates, and finally, bring a little charisma.
Above all, if a contender is fortunate enough to be named on a short list, he or she must never be seen as too eager, Anderson says. After all, it's embarrassing if you leave the dance alone.
One candidate who seems to be playing the courting game about right in the eyes of many observers is Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who has been named as a possible Gore running mate.
On the record, Mr. Richardson says he's not campaigning for the job. But the former congressman is not exactly closing the door on it, either. "I'm aware of the speculation," he says and quickly adds, "it's heartening that for the first time a Hispanic is being mentioned."
One question many are asking: Is the political climate right to invite a woman candidate to a ticket?
"We're talking about it as a possibility - it's exciting," says Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) from Washington, who is serving as an inside adviser to the Bush campaign.
If Bush chooses a woman, it could help close the gender gap and draw more female voters to his camp. And a decision by Bush to pick a woman before the Republican convention, which comes two weeks before the Democratic gathering, would likely affect Gore's decision.
"The Republicans have more incentive to do it first," says Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research in Washington. "And if Bush were to do it, Gore would almost have to."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society