When he escapes to his retreat outside Sedona for Memorial Day grilling this weekend, Arizona Sen. John McCain will have some high-profile company -- at least three Republican politicians widely viewed as potential running mates.
Among the guests invited to McCain's cabin are former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who campaigned with McCain recently in New Orleans.
McCain strategist Charlie Black insisted the gathering would be "purely social" and had "nothing whatsoever to do with the vice presidential selection process."
"Wouldn't it be difficult to interview people for vice president with the other competitors there?" he said.
McCain's aides have been silent about when McCain might choose a vice presidential candidate. And though McCain has said he's narrowed his list to about 20, he has said he will not reveal their names to spare them embarrassment if they are not chosen.
Playing down the significance of the weekend, Black noted that McCain and his wife, Cindy, have hosted similar events when other presumed contenders, including Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, have spent the day at McCain's secluded Hidden Valley Ranch.
McCain has invited nine couples this weekend, including Black and his wife. Black declined to name the other guests.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, former EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman and FedEx Corp. Chief Executive Frederick W. Smith are also expected to attend, according to campaign and Republican sources who asked not to be named when discussing the guest list.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said he expected McCain to look for a "next-generation governor" from a battleground state who would be seen as "a good potential president."
Several Republican strategists said McCain's campaign had an interest in fueling running-mate speculation to draw attention to the campaign, which has been overshadowed by the Democratic presidential contest.
Some political analysts also said there would be advantages for McCain to name a running mate early. A partner on the trail could help McCain raise money as he tries to catch up with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who has raised significantly more. McCain's poll numbers are also expected to drop when Obama becomes McCain's lone opponent, and news about a running mate could help counter that.
Republican consultant Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996, said it was "extremely early" for McCain to be doing public tryouts. Serious interviews would likely come after the top candidates have been vetted by lawyers and accountants, Reed said. But he acknowledged a key component in choosing McCain's running mate would be determining compatibility. The weekend, Reed said, "is a perfect way to see how people really are, how they interact with other people."
The most crucial test of chemistry may be with Romney, who is seen as one of the strongest potential candidates to join a McCain ticket. When they were rivals for the GOP nomination, McCain was at times disdainful of the former CEO's experience and qualifications to be president, dismissing him as a "manager," not a leader.
Their personalities could not be more different. McCain is irreverent, temperamental and loquacious; Romney is straight-laced, even-tempered and disciplined.
But having Romney, 61, on the ticket could help McCain with the religious right and conservatives. Romney courted the party's conservative activists assiduously during his presidential campaign.
"I think Romney is the favorite of most who are one circle removed from McCain," said Vin Weber, a Republican lobbyist who supported Romney in the primary. "But no one knows what the innermost circle -- McCain, Cindy, [advisor Mark] Salter, [campaign manager Rick] Davis, Black -- are thinking."
Campaigning with them recently, McCain has lavished praise on Crist, 51, and Jindal, 36. Both men could provide a youthful presence on the ticket.
Crist is hugely popular among Republicans and Democrats in Florida. His eleventh-hour endorsement of McCain is credited with helping the senator clinch Florida's January primary and put him in position to win the nomination.
A former state attorney general and state lawmaker, Crist is more affable than ideological and is viewed with suspicion by conservatives. He has built a reputation as a consumer advocate and environmentalist who also backed prisoner work crews and opposed abortion.
Picking Crist, whose approval rating hovers around 70%, would all but assure a McCain victory in a state the GOP must win to gain an Electoral College majority.
A spokeswoman for Crist said McCain called him personally to invite him and his girlfriend, Carole Rome, a Miami businesswoman, to the weekend getaway.
Jindal has been considered a rising GOP star since he was elected governor in October. Before winning -- making him the nation's first Indian American governor -- Jindal served two terms in the House.
Choosing Jindal could appeal to younger voters. But he may be regarded as too green to be second in line to the presidency, particularly when the McCain campaign's central line of attack against Obama is that he is too inexperienced to be president.
Times staff writers Janet Hook and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.