WASHINGTON — Never in modern memory have so many eminent people been mentioned for a job that has been compared -- unfavorably -- to a bucket of warm spit.
To believe the talk in Washington, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is considering more than two dozen candidates as potential vice presidential nominees, including 13 senators or former senators, 11 governors or former governors, two retired generals and former Vice President Al Gore.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, July 02, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Potential running mates: A graphic in Monday's Section A that accompanied an article on potential 2008 vice presidential candidates said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) had criticized Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, for offering to meet with the leaders of North Korea and Iraq. Obama had offered to meet with the leaders of North Korea and Iran.
For Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the list of potential running mates is almost as long: eight current or former senators, 10 current or former governors, a couple of high-technology chief executives -- and one of the same retired generals Obama likes.
"This list is getting so long that everyone's going to end up on it eventually," joked Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who has advised Obama on whom to pick.
Everyone except Durbin. Since he comes from the same state as his party's nominee, he won't get the job. So he's declared himself chairman of the "Ineligible Caucus."
But those are just the "long lists," roll calls that include not only real possibilities but anyone the presumptive nominees want to flatter with a mention.
The real question is who's on the "short lists." And that remains, for the moment, Washington's deepest mystery.
Both candidates have refused to say who's on their short lists, whether they even have short lists, or when they plan to choose.
"At this point, you want a long list so you can talk to everyone you should," Durbin said.
The candidates' staffs are tight-lipped as well. The McCain campaign won't even say who is running their vice presidential selection process. (It's A.B. Culvahouse, chairman of the law firm O'Melveny & Myers and a White House counsel under President Reagan.) But if most of those directly involved are keeping quiet, that doesn't stop political professionals from gossiping. Based on their educated guesses, this is how the winnowing is likely to proceed:
McCain is tempted to choose his friend Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat-turned-independent who has campaigned for the presumed Republican nominee. But he's more likely to go with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, actual Republicans, who would be more palatable to the party's conservative core.
Obama is reported to be considering Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, two Democrats with formidable national security credentials, but he's more likely to settle on Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware or Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who battled Obama for the nomination, is not likely to be chosen, Democratic strategists have concluded -- if only because her husband, former President Clinton, has conspicuously failed to make peace with the man who defeated his wife.
To go with such analyses, here are some facts:
Geography is not as important as it used to be. The last vice presidential candidate chosen mainly to deliver a state's electoral votes was Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, and that campaign was in 1960, a year before Obama was born.
Instead, each of the current campaigns is probably asking four questions, strategists from both parties said.
First, does the candidate bring balance to the ticket -- not geographical balance but resume balance? McCain probably wants someone who can shore up his standing among social conservatives, the Republican "base" that provides millions of volunteers and voters but has been relatively unenthusiastic about him. Obama may be looking for someone with deeper national security experience than a first-term senator who didn't serve in the military.
Second, credibility: "Is this someone who could, in an emergency, step in and lead the nation?" Durbin asked. That question is as important for Obama, 46, as it is for McCain, 71.
Third, compatibility: Can these two politicians forge a good working partnership that will make their campaign more effective? And in an era when the vice presidency has become more powerful than ever before, could they work well together in the White House?
"What both Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain will be looking for is someone who will be a partner in governing," said Ron Klain, who helped Democratic nominee Al Gore choose Lieberman as his running mate in 2000.
"Outside observers assume it's a more political decision than it is."
Finally, there's the "do no harm" rule: Will the vice presidential nominee turn out to be a problem instead of an asset? In 1972, Democratic vice presidential nominee Thomas F. Eagleton withdrew from the race after a newspaper discovered that he had received psychiatric care, including electric shock treatments.
Ever since, presidential campaigns have mounted massive fact-finding efforts to ensure that potential picks are hiding no skeletons.
Some of the names on the candidates' long lists are there merely to please different constituencies.
People are flattered to be mentioned.