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Dan Balz's Take

Obama and McCain Looking Out for No. 2

By Dan Balz
Tracking the vice presidential sweepstakes is always an exercise in chasing ghosts, but perhaps never more so than in this year's campaign. Those who know what's going on generally don't talk and those who don't know often do, leaving hungry journalists to speculate with partial or perhaps even incorrect information about the state of play.

After all, this was to be the week that somebody picked a vice president -- or was that last week? That is what some of the tea leaves or misdirected signals seemed to suggest not that many days ago. But was it John McCain or Barack Obama who was going to make the early pick?

When Obama was overseas, the thinking was that McCain might have to move quickly on the vice presidency to grab the attention back from his rival. Instead the McCain camp decided to go on offense against Obama with a series of negative ads that changed the conversation about the campaign. There was also speculation while Obama was overseas that he might name his running mate when he returned. That, of course, didn't happen.

Lately there has been talk inside the McCain camp that Obama might pick his running mate soon to deflect attention away from all the attacks flying in his direction. Their thinking was that he needed to grab back some of the momentum for his campaign. That overlooked the reality that the presumptive Democratic nominee is getting ready to fly off to Hawaii for a vacation with his family (and trailing reporters). Leaving behind a newly-minted vice presidential running mate makes little sense.

Meanwhile it's not at all clear that anyone's timetable has truly changed, in part because the process of vetting and interviewing prospective candidates and then debating with advisers who the actual choice should be takes a considerable amount of time -- certainly more than the hurry-up world of 24/7 media and blogs assumes.

Obama now seems likely to make his selection when he returns from vacation, which would put it in the week before his convention. That is later by several weeks than John Kerry made his pick of John Edwards four years ago, but roughly the same timing as in 1992 when Bill Clinton picked Al Gore a week before his convention.

If that seems the most logical timing for Obama, then McCain's choices are clear: preempt Obama and move while Obama is away or wait until Obama has made his selection and counter with full knowledge of what his opponent has done.

Moving sooner of course risks getting caught up in the Olympics, which some strategists believe will overshadow everything else that may be happening in the world. That is a dubious assumption. While the summer games will draw enormous attention, it's hard to believe that the selection of a vice presidential running mate by either candidate will not punch through into public consciousness. Will CNN and MSNBC and Fox and the networks not carrying the games (CBS and ABC) -- let alone the worlds of print and internet journalism--not jump on the vice presidential story?

One of the savviest Republicans in the country was speculating about vice presidential matters a few weeks ago. He was asked whom McCain should pick. "I have a recommendation but it's not of a person and I shared this with them back in March," he said. "Wait till the Democrat convention is over and see who they pick...You'll have more information."

Speculation about who is in the running may be generally accurate, in part because it is in the interest of the campaigns to have most of those on their shortlists the topic of conversation. That is part of the vetting process. That still leaves open the possibility for surprise, although a total shock is not necessarily in the best interest of the candidate unless the pick is a big and instantly accepted person -- someone like Al Gore for Obama.

This week two new names popped up into public view: Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Tex.). How serious they may be under consideration is not really known. McCain likes Cantor. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thinks highly of Edwards. But reaching for a House member is a stretch for either candidate, particularly for Obama.

The focus remains on a handful of prospective picks. For McCain they include former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, former Ohio congressman Rob Portman, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. For Obama they include Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and perhaps a few others. Hillary Clinton has always been a long shot, but Obama may be hard pressed to think of someone better qualified.

Some of these prospective candidates are going through a public tryout. Kaine did a series of interviews and appearances after my colleagues Michael Shear and Shailagh Murray reported last week that he had turned over financial and other records to the campaign. Pawlenty will be in Washington on Wednesday to talk about the future of the Republican Party, which he says should be more about Sam's Club and less about the country club.

If Obama is truly worried about his foreign policy credentials, he would pick Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But those who know Obama best believe he is less likely to try to deal with a perceived weakness through a vice presidential selection. Rather, they say, he is more inclined to attack weaknesses head on. That was the purpose of his foreign trip, after all.

McCain may be more likely to look to someone younger to offset concerns about his age, and his assumed list of possible choices includes several who would meet that test. Picking someone to shore up his perceived weakness on economic issues -- there has been talk of various people from the business world -- would risk having to select someone who has little political experience. That would violate the first rule of this process: first, do no harm.

This summer parlor game will soon come to an end, after two final media frenzies as the selections near. Meanwhile, the speculation is entertaining for sure and sometimes accurate. But the process is anything but transparent and that too is worth keeping in mind.

Posted at 11:46 AM ET on Aug 5, 2008  | Category:  Dan Balz's Take
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