On the eve of Bob Dole's announcement of his vice presidential running mate in 1996, John McCain knew he was under serious consideration. But he was on an ill-timed trip to Hawaii -- without a cellphone.
As he tells it, he spent most of the time worried about missing a call to his hotel room, which never came. He learned Dole had passed him over for Jack Kemp when he flipped on the television news.
Now, with the Republican nomination virtually sewn up, McCain is facing a barrage of questions about who he might choose as a running mate. Perhaps because of his own public vetting years ago, the Arizona senator is being uncharacteristically tight-lipped.
He frequently waves off queries with a joke that the vice president has just two duties: casting tie votes in the Senate and inquiring daily about the health of the president. But that hasn't stopped feverish speculation about his frequent companions on the campaign trail and those who have made the invitation list for weekend retreats to the candidate's cabin outside Sedona.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, March 26, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
John McCain: An article in Saturday's Section A on Republican presidential candidate John McCain's possible running mates quoted GOP consultant Scott Reed as saying, "By the time this election gets around, everyone is going to know he [would] be the oldest president ever sworn in." McCain, at 72, would be the oldest first-term president. President Reagan was 73 when sworn into his second term.
Many believe that voters' concern about McCain's age -- he will be 72 on inauguration day -- means his choice for the No. 2 spot will carry a great deal of weight.
"By the time this election gets around, everyone is going to know he [would] be the oldest president ever sworn in," said Republican consultant Scott Reed. "It's a concern and it has to be addressed."
But there is little consensus within the party about what issue will define McCain's choice. Should his team look to a candidate who could shore up his economic credentials? Should he choose a partner who could allay suspicions among some conservatives that McCain is too liberal? Or does he have the latitude to choose a candidate who might broaden the appeal of the Republican Party?
McCain's most obvious task is finding someone the American people would view as a suitable stand-in as commander in chief.
Reed, who was Dole's campaign manager and helped orchestrate the surprise choice of Kemp in 1996, said McCain will look for "a good, strong conservative" with a record of governing who could complement the ticket "both from a generational standpoint [and] a geographical standpoint."
Many conservatives view the selection process as McCain's opportunity to earn their confidence, said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.
"A lot of conservatives fear he's going to change [the party] in some way and redraw it with them on the outside looking in," Keene said. "If you select the right person, you go a long way toward solving that problem.
"You can hit a grand slam home run, which might be a [Gov.] Mark Sanford of South Carolina, or a home run with Mitt Romney, or a double or a triple with a [North Carolina Sen.] Richard Burr, or a [Wisconsin Rep.] Paul Ryan . . . . Or you can screw it up."
Others, like Ken Duberstein, a chief of staff to President Reagan, say the field is open: "Does the right wing have veto power? The answer is no. Conservatives have a role to play, but it is not to dictate who the vice presidential candidate is."
Many believe McCain will consider Romney -- whose experience as a CEO could add economic heft to the ticket -- even though the two had a testy relationship when they were rivals for the nomination. McCain also is expected to consider onetime White House hopeful Mike Huckabee, a skilled campaigner who could draw evangelicals. Huckabee, however, was widely derided by economic conservatives over his record on taxes when he was governor of Arkansas.
Several charismatic governors with close ties to McCain are getting attention as well: Charlie Crist of Florida, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and South Carolina's Sanford.
Reed predicted Crist is likely to be "on McCain's short list of three or four." With approval ratings topping 70%, he "would about put a nail in it for the general election" by helping McCain win Florida, Reed said.
Crist, 51, styled himself as "the people's governor" after winning a tough-on-crime reputation in the Florida Legislature and serving as the state's attorney general and education commissioner. His last-minute endorsement is widely credited with helping McCain win the Florida primary.
"He's got the credentials in a lot of key policy areas," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. Crist, she said, is a fiscal conservative who is "very populist, people-oriented, kind of a sunny personality -- it's probably a nice complement to McCain."
But, MacManus noted, he is viewed with suspicion in some conservative circles in Florida because of his views on abortion and his support for civil unions and for the expansion of stem cell research. Crist ran campaign ads in 2006 casting himself as "pro-life"; several Florida newspapers have reported that he does not support overturning Roe vs. Wade. His spokeswoman did not return e-mails seeking clarification on this position.