Political Junkie: Three Weeks to Pennsylvania

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As the Pennsylvania primary approaches, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue to take swipes at one another. Meanwhile, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain embarks on a "Service to America" tour. Listeners weigh in with their president-vice president dream ticket.

Who Will Be McCain's No. 2?

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty button

Minnesota's governor, Tim Pawlenty, is a leading contender for McCain's VP. But here's a dark horse to consider: Ohio's Rob Portman. hide caption

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'I Back Jack' button

In 1996, Jack Kemp became the first Republican running mate named before the convention began. hide caption

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt - Henry Wallace button

Henry Wallace was the last sitting Cabinet member named to a presidential ticket. hide caption

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'On Wisconsin. McCarthy' button

Forty years ago today, Eugene McCarthy defeats President Johnson in the Wisconsin primary, two days after LBJ announced he would not run again. hide caption

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This may come as a surprise to those who are riveted and absorbed by every back and forth between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but there is a Republican running for president this year as well. His name is John McCain. He's from Arizona, he's been in Congress since 1983, and he had the fortune — or misfortune — to wrap up his party's nomination last month.

There are pluses and minuses to his virtual disappearance from the front pages. He can, for the most part, sit back as the two Dems claw at each other, picking up disaffected independents in the process. There is also the possibility that voters will forget about him. And when he has received media coverage, it hasn't always been complimentary; witness when he misspoke about Iran training al-Qaida forces. He still is struggling to raise the kind of money that helped George W. Bush during his two campaigns, and he still has some work cut out for him to rally conservatives to his side. McCain is in the midst of a cross-country tour to reintroduce himself to voters. Some polls have shown him defeating either Democrat in the general election.

It is not going out on a limb to suggest that polls seven months in advance are a bit suspect — we couldn't even get the New Hampshire primary right the day of the primary! — but it does tend to amplify Democrats' nervousness about the personal and contentious battle taking place between Clinton and Obama; many fear what toll it could take on the party and its chances of winning in November. After all, it's not rocket science to assume that the longer a battle goes on for a presidential nomination, and the more personal it gets, the more the party's chances for victory in November are diminished. We saw it with the Republicans (Reagan vs. Ford) in 1976 and with the Democrats (Kennedy vs. Carter) four years later. The prospect of a repeat performance by the Dems this year is especially alarming to many in the party, who feel that after the "almosts" of 2000 and 2004, this is the year the stars are aligned for them to win back the White House.

Some Democrats — notably Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, an Obama supporter — are calling for Clinton to drop out of the race, pointing to calculations that suggest Clinton cannot overtake Obama's lead among pledged delegates. The Clinton folks, in return, say that withdrawing is ludicrous, especially if she wins Pennsylvania, as expected, on April 22. And besides, neither candidate can win the nomination without the support of superdelegates, some 250 of which are still undeclared. Both Clinton and Obama are putting on a full-court press to win over these supers.

On the other hand, the Republicans, it has been said, like things neat and tidy. Their winner-take-all procedure for delegates in many states allows their candidate to wrap up things sooner than later; McCain's victory on March 4 was the earliest clinching of a GOP presidential nomination in history.

The Republicans, as the incumbent party, will hold its convention after the Democrats, beginning Sept. 1. Only one thing of consequence will happen for the GOP between now and then: McCain will choose his No. 2. It may be the most important decision he makes between now and Nov. 4.

Yes, the selection of a running mate is often overrated. The feeling four years ago was that John Kerry's naming of John Edwards was an inspired choice, but after all was said and done it's hard to see where he helped. No southern state, including Edwards' home of North Carolina, voted Democratic that year. And for all the fanfare of having Geraldine Ferraro on the Democratic ticket in 1984, Walter Mondale still lost 49 states.

But sometimes it really has mattered. Lyndon Johnson may have been the difference between victory and defeat for John Kennedy in 1960. Bill Clinton threw conventional wisdom out the window in 1992 when he picked fellow Southerner and baby boomer Al Gore, who turned out to be the most influential vice president in history. That is, until the next administration, when George W. Bush got the foreign policy gravitas he was lacking when he named Dick Cheney. No vice president in history has ever had the power that Cheney has had during the past seven-plus years.

For McCain, the choice of a running mate is important for two reasons. One, he needs to send a signal to doubting conservatives that he is really one of them. True, in what still appears on paper to be a Democratic year, he's got to win over independents and independent-minded Democrats if he is going to make it to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. His campaign knows that there could very well be a resistance from some voters come November to vote for a woman or an African-American. But he can't name a moderate to the ticket either, and certainly not one who is pro-choice.

And two, there is the age factor. At 71, McCain would be the oldest person ever to win the presidency. His mother, Roberta, is 95 years old and shows no sign of slowing down. So for all we know, McCain could live forever. But he has had cancer. At the least, we may be looking at a one-term president. And so the person he picks as a running mate will be eagerly watched.

Here are some possibilities, some more possible than others, listed alphabetically. Subsequent Junkie columns will review their chances:

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-D) of Connecticut
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Former Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota

Let me know what you think. If history is any judge, you have plenty of time to send in your predictions. Here's a timeline when Republican presidential candidates named their ticket mates:

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