Kerry's unhurried VP search

Some see a safe choice like Gephardt, but Edwards or others may still prevail.

At times, reporters stake out every entrance to the Washington building that houses John Kerry's presidential campaign. Anyone ever mentioned as a possible running mate for Senator Kerry who is seen entering or exiting the building causes a stir. But in the end, only one person has any idea who may wind up as the Democratic vice presidential candidate: John Kerry.

With each passing day, as the July 26 start of the Democratic National Convention approaches, the Greek chorus of name floating, rumor dropping, and wishful thinking gets a little louder. Will the junior senator from Massachusetts play it safe or go for the "wow" factor? Will his choice give a nod to geography or to personal chemistry? Would he actually put a Republican on the ticket?

"Those who know anything shouldn't say, and those who have advice should keep it to themselves," says Bruce Reed, a former top aide in the Clinton White House and president of the Democratic Leadership Council.

The idea of keeping quiet may seem prudent, but it hasn't stopped legions of Washington political types - from campaign staff to bloggers - from throwing in their two cents' worth. Political historians maintain that vice presidential picks rarely matter, pointing to the 1960 election of John Kennedy as the last time the veep candidate - Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas - clearly helped pull in a crucial state.

But if this year's vote is anywhere as close as the 2000 election, the running mate might make a real difference, and so Kerry is approaching this task with the utmost care. Democrats say the way he is going about his search reveals as much about Kerry as his ultimate selection. One thing is known: He has instructed the head of his veep search team, Jim Johnson, to find someone presidential - "somebody who has the ability to fill in as president if something terrible were to happen," Kerry said last Thursday in an interview with American Urban Radio Networks.

That comment, plus a one-hour Capitol Hill meeting between Kerry and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt last Wednesday, has fueled speculation that the former leader of the House Democrats could be a leading contender. At the very least, Representative Gephardt would fulfill Rule No. 1 of How to Pick a Running Mate: Do no harm. Through 26 years in the House and two runs for the presidency, he has been thoroughly vetted in the media, and now by the Kerry campaign, too.

Selecting Gephardt "makes an awful lot of sense," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Missouri is very close, and putting Gephardt in could tip the state.... He's qualified and has good ties to traditional Democratic groups, but at the same time it would be extremely hard to tag him as an extremist."

But what about the charismatic John Edwards, senator from North Carolina, who scored highest for veep choice in a recent poll of Democratic voters? And what about the fact that Gephardt's 2004 presidential campaign folded after the first contest, the Iowa caucuses, after he was tagged as old news? Senator Edwards, only 5-1/2 years into his political career, was the last major Democrat standing against Kerry during the primaries - lasting much longer than Gephardt.

"Edwards is an incandescent character," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "When you have a ticket in which the veep candidate is so much more appealing, you have problems," he adds, citing the 1988 campaign as an example. The Democratic vice presidential choice, Lloyd Bentsen, "came out and pulled the rug out from under Dan Quayle," the Republican veep nominee. But the Democratic presidential contender, Michael Dukakis, couldn't do the same with George H.W. Bush.

Furthermore, analysts say, it would be tough for Kerry to win North Carolina even with Edwards on the ticket.

Another geographically oriented pick would be Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) of Iowa, another short-lister who has been vetted by the Kerry campaign. But Iowa already leans for Kerry, and Governor Vilsack is untested on the national stage.

One long shot who might shake up the race is Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana. Even though Indiana is considered solidly Republican in presidential politics, Senator Bayh is a popular figure there. "If there's a Hoosier on the ticket, they'd support it," says Professor Baker.

With five weeks to go before the start of the Democratic convention, the bottom line is that Kerry's choice could still be wide open. Polls show Kerry and President Bush in a dead-heat race; Kerry reportedly does not believe he needs to throw a Hail Mary pass in his veep selection. No minorities or women are getting serious mention. And the idea of putting Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona on the ticket seems to have been put firmly to rest.

Ultimately, a dark-horse choice wouldn't necessarily prove anything anyway. "I don't know that 'wows' have a lasting effect," says Professor Pitney. In 1988, "Geraldine Ferraro was a wow candidate, and Mondale lost 49 states."

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