Picking a No. 2 in the glare of the Internet age

More than ever, vice presidential wannabes must maneuver between groveling and remaining cool.

Time was when a presumptive presidential nominee could sit back and quietly ponder his options for a running mate without a daily deluge of media speculation and reports of suspected preening by vice presidential wannabes.

Those days are long gone. In an era of and other Web-based political poop sheets, where space is infinite and with video cameras and tape recorders leaving little unreported, never before has so much digital ink been spilled on something that's likely not to matter to the election's outcome.

But in the dog days that precede the parties' end-of-summer conventions, there's no guiltier pleasure among the politically minded than to chew over the latest clues as to who really wants the nod, who doesn't, and what vibes the candidates themselves are throwing off.

Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota and a strong backer of Republican John McCain from the start of the campaign, has cut off his little "mullet" in favor of a more conventional hair style. There's a clear sign he really wants on the GOP ticket. Ditto Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), who is getting married – thus dampening some of the concern about his lack of a wedding band. Former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn (D), who is regularly mentioned as someone who could add national security gravitas to Barack Obama's Democratic candidacy, is now backing away from his opposition to gays in the military.

The beauty of all the talk is there no way to disprove any of the theories, at least until the actual selections are announced. The candidates themselves may not know which way they're leaning, at this point. Those with a window into their thinking aren't talking, and those who talk probably don't have a clue.

But out of the chaos a certain order has emerged. And the old rule – that being seen as lobbying for the veep nod will guarantee you're not chosen – may be dead. Exhibit A is Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who proved to be Senator McCain's toughest competitor for the Republican nomination. Soon after dropping out of the race, Mr. Romney was all over television touting his interest in being McCain's running mate – despite the senator's ill-disguised disdain for the wealthy and well-coiffed ex-governor.

Romney then cooled the overt groveling, and after many weeks of raising money for McCain and touting his virtues on cable TV, is now seen as a leading contender to join the GOP ticket. To McCain insiders, who stress the importance of the senator's personal comfort level with his potential No. 2, the choice isn't a slam dunk. But they don't rule it out.

"It still seems like an unlikely pick, if only because of the importance McCain puts on those types of personal feelings," says Dan Schnur, who ran communications for McCain in his 2000 presidential race and is not active in the current race. "But for all the talk, Romney certainly brings a lot of political benefits to the ticket, which could force McCain to reconsider how important that type of personal chemistry is to him."

Romney has a proven track record as one of the party's top fundraisers, especially critical in a race where Obama is outraising McCain by more than 2 to 1.

Romney also has a track record as a successful business executive, giving him a comfort level with economic matters that could give McCain a boost on the top issue of concern to voters. On the negative side, Romney would have to defend his business record of downsizing and layoffs.

Two other names consistently mentioned with McCain are Gov. Pawlenty and former Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio, who also served as budget director under President Bush. Both are personally close to McCain and from swing states, but are untested on the national stage. Romney has the benefit of having been vetted by the media during his presidential run; he emerged with an intact image as a squeaky-clean family man.

On the Great Mentioner's list for Obama, two top names are Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Evan Bayh of Indiana.

Biden is a party elder with major foreign policy credentials, but he's known for being long-winded. Bayh, who is just a few years older than Obama, has the benefit of reinforcing the "generational change" theme while bringing to the table extensive policy experience in both domestic and international affairs.

Both men are popular at home and could be helpful in bringing along swing states. Though Delaware is solidly blue, neighboring Pennsylvania (which gets a lot of Biden coverage, especially in the Philadelphia media market) is a crucial swing state.

Neighboring New Jersey, which leans blue but isn't 100 percent, also could be swayed by having a quasi-local boy on the ticket.

Political strategists aren't convinced that the potential to nudge a state in one direction or another is that high on the list of criteria these days. It's been almost 50 years since Lyndon Johnson helped John F. Kennedy win the crucial swing state of Texas, the last clear example of a running mate's geographic utility.

What really matters is that the veep choice do no harm and seem presidential enough in the event he or she has to step in to do the job. But even a "bad" choice doesn't have to be a deal-breaker.

"When President Bush's father chose Dan Quayle, it wasn't seen as a good presidential choice, and he won anyway," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster.

The idea of an Obama-Hillary Clinton ticket seems to be fading, with polls indicating her selection would do nearly as much harm as good with likely voters. It also hasn't helped to have an outside group with ties to the Clinton campaign agitating vocally for her selection, analysts say. A potential president wants to be seen making his own decisions, not caving in to outside pressure.

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