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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. It's the time of year when presidential candidates try to avoid the mistakes of the past. Their vice presidential choices can improve their chances of winning and can also create big distractions. Consider 1952, when vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon was accused of dubious dealing. He went on TV to declare that the only gift he had personally accepted was a dog.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

RICHARD NIXON: It was a little cocker spaniel dog, black-and-white spotted. And our little girl Tricia, the 6-year-old, named it Checkers.

INSKEEP: The Checkers speech saved Nixon. In 1988, Dan Quayle won the vice presidency despite being slammed for comparing his record to John F. Kennedy.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

(Soundbite of applause)

INSKEEP: That's Lloyd Bentsen slamming him.

As we'll hear in a moment, there was an even bigger disaster on the Democratic side 36 years ago. We have two reports, starting with NPR's David Greene, who will look at Barack Obama's efforts.

DAVID GREENE: Members of Barack Obama's vice presidential search committee have been busy. This week, they sat down with Democratic Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota. Conrad said they were throwing out some names.

Senator KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota): We discussed 15 to 20 people who are possibilities.

GREENE: So clearly, Obama's list is still long. I wish I had time to go through all the possibilities, but we only have four minutes for this piece. So I found a solution. NPR political editor Ken Rudin put together a list of potential Democratic running mates. To read it, we called actor John Moschitta. He's famous for speed talking.

Mr. JOHN MOSCHITTA (Actor): What about Hillary Clinton? She's strong among women and seniors and Latinos and blue-collar white voters. And she won Pennsylvania and Ohio and Kentucky and West Virginia. But when you pick her you get Bill in the process, and that may be more trouble than it's worth.

If Obama wanted to pick a woman, there's Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, who's very popular in the Republican state. And Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who was for Obama before there was Obama. Caroline Kennedy is a Kennedy. Maria Shriver is a Shriver, a Schwarzenegger and a Kennedy.

Bill Richardson is the governor of New Mexico. He's Hispanic, and he has foreign policy experience, and he was in the U.N. and he served in the Cabinet, and he comes from a swing state in the West. But Ted Strickland is the governor of Ohio, which could bring along 20 electoral votes, but he says he won't take it. Ed Rendell is the governor of Pennsylvania, which could bring along 21 electoral votes, but he says he won't get the offer. There's also Jim Webb of Virginia. He's strong in defense, served in the Reagan administration, could help win over some of those Republican voters. He comes from a state that hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.

And what about a Republican? What about Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City? Is he too short? Is he too rich? Or is the porridge just right? What about Chuck Hagel, the senator from Nebraska? He served in Vietnam, and he hates Iraq, but is he too far right?

GREENE: OK. So Obama has some options. But don't ask the candidate for any hints.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): The next time you hear from me about the vice-presidential selection process will be when I have selected a vice president.

GREENE: Of course journalists have kept hounding Obama, especially about whether he'll choose Hillary Clinton. "The Daily Show" aired this roundup of what news anchors have been asking Obama.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Daily Show")

Unidentified Woman #1: Why not pick Senator Clinton?

Unidentified Man #1: In basketball terms, has she at minimum tried to jam you?

Unidentified Man #2: Does there have to be a yes or no on the issue of Hillary Clinton?

Unidentified Woman #2: Can you see working with her or does it just make you think, ugh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: So far, all Obama has said about choosing Clinton is this...

Senator OBAMA: Obviously she'd be on anybody's short list.

GREENE: As Obama thinks about Clinton and all these names on his list, one of his goals is to avoid 1972. That's when Democratic nominee George McGovern called on Tom Eagleton.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Senator TOM EAGLETON (Democrat, Missouri): Senator McGovern was on the phone and he said, Tom, this is George McGovern. I didn't recognize his voice. And he said, Tom, I'd like you to be my running mate.

GREENE: As it turned out, Eagleton had for years undergone electric shock therapy to treat depression. Unfortunately for the party, this came out after he was named to the ticket, and two weeks later Eagleton announced...

Senator EAGLETON: I will write to the chairman of the Democratic Party, withdrawing my candidacy.

GREENE: That was an embarrassment for the party. Then there was 1984.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Representative GERALDINE FERRARO (Democrat, New York): Ladies and gentlemen of the convention, my name is Geraldine Ferraro.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: Ferraro was the first woman to run on a major-party ticket. What the party didn't know until later is her husband had some dubious business dealings. Interestingly, the person who vetted Ferraro for Walter Mondale that year was Jim Johnson. He was doing the same job for Barack Obama until this week, when he resigned amid reports about his own financial affairs.

Back in 2000, Ron Klein helped do the VP vetting for Al Gore. Klein says there's too much focus on a running mate helping a candidate to win states or make up for weaknesses.

Mr. RON KLEIN: People think about this ticket-balancing thing a lot more than the candidates do. I think candidates are really looking for someone who could help their overall cause in the campaign, who could be a good partner in governing, and who could be a good president if they had to step up to do that job.

GREENE: Whatever Obama's thinking about, he doesn't have that much time since his primary race lasted so long.

David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

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