Handicapping Virginia's Veep Sweeps
Barack Obama faces three possible paths toward choosing his running mate.
He could cave to the pressure from Hillary Clinton loyalists and choose his bitter-verging-on-paranoid rival, the one Democrat who would most undermine Obama's message of change. But as Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote of Clinton, "She doesn't turn the page, she is the page." Obama can't afford to go there.
Obama could seek to counter doubts about his experience by choosing an older establishment figure with decades of involvement on foreign and military issues, such as Sam Nunn or Chuck Hagel.
Or he could look for someone who fits with his image of youth, energy and eagerness to break with politics as usual.
That third path leads to Virginia. To be sure, there are possibilities all across the country, including Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, John Edwards, Bill Richardson and on and on. But three of the strongest candidates are prominent Virginia pols, and with the Old Dominion very much in play (even if no Democrat has carried the state for president since 1964), it's time to handicap the odds against their selection:
Mark Warner: 24-1. Just because the former governor is running to succeed John Warner in the U.S. Senate doesn't mean that he's out of consideration for vice president. Warner is easily the most popular politician in Virginia these days and his appeal extends well beyond the Democratic base. More important to Obama, Warner has mastered the art of winning over exactly the voters Obama had trouble persuading through most of the primary season--working class white voters in the suburbs and rural areas.
There are those in Virginia politics who believe that Warner dropped his own presidential bid prematurely, that he bailed out in good part because of the inaccurate assumption that the Hillary Clinton juggernaut could not be stopped. But that's water under the bridge. The question now is, would putting Warner on the ticket do Obama any good outside of Virginia?
Warner stayed neutral in the primary campaign because of his Senate race, but his wife made the family's real preference clear by endorsing Obama. As my colleague Tim Craig noted, Obama made kind remarks about Warner at his appearances in Virginia last week, but then again, Obama said nice things about all three of our Virginia contenders.
Warner helps Obama by being a moderate Democrat who is pro-gun and who has found a way to avoid the secular elitist tag that Republicans are chomping to slap on Obama. But some Democrats will be wary of pulling Warner out of the Senate race because as that race stands now, it's an assumed Democratic pickup, given the weakness of former Gov. Jim Gilmore's appeal even to Republicans, let alone to independents. And Warner, like Obama, is perceived as someone who is coming to foreign and military matters fairly fresh--not what the presumptive nominee is looking for. Warner does his NASCAR/Bubba routine well, but in the end, he's a technocrat, a new media entrepreneur who would do little to help Obama with voters who perceive him as something snootier than a regular guy.
Jim Webb: 12-1. Virginia's junior senator is on paper the perfect running mate. He's the antidote to qualms some have about Obama's lack of experience on military and foreign affairs. He's the counterpoint to criticism that Obama deep down doesn't empathize or identify with Americans who never completed college. And, even more than Obama, Webb is perceived as unquestionably his own man, an independent if one ever existed.
Despite a fairly wooden manner on the campaign trail, Webb has proven himself politically, having taken out a popular Republican senator, George Allen. But it's also true that credit for that outcome goes as much to Mr. Macaca as to Webb himself. Had Allen not self-destructed, would Webb's anti-war credentials, his soldierly stature, and his history as a former Republican have been enough to win in what was once a reliably GOP state?
Like Obama, Webb is a splendid writer--his novels are not only what some say he's best at, they are also his real passion. Unlike Obama, Webb is not exactly an inspiring speaker. He's awkward working a room or a rope line, and he does not take well either to the idiotic rituals required of a campaigner or to being handled by staffers.
Webb is, more than either of the other two Virginians in the veepstakes, putting himself out there in a big way. But he has a new book to hawk, which explains at least part of why he's suddenly appearing on every TV chat show known to mankind. But despite his protestations, Webb seems intrigued by this VP idea. And putting him on the ticket would represent little if any risk to the party: He could stay in the Senate while running for vice president, and if he won, his (temporary) successor would be appointed by Gov. Tim Kaine and would thus be another Democrat.
But Webb is famously a loose cannon, a guy who bristles at following anyone else's script. Choosing Webb would be a gutsy move because Obama would be risking having his #2 man go way off the reservation if he happened to disagree with the boss's views.
And it's not clear that Webb would deliver Virginia. Yes, he's a popular guy and yes, he'd help neutralize whatever advantage John McCain might have among the commonwealth's many military voters. But even with the macaca gift, Webb beat Allen by only nine thousand votes out of 2.35 million cast, a 49.6 percent to 49.3 percent victory. Webb has a great personal story and would be a big asset to Obama's campaign, but not necessarily as vice president. The risks are likely just too high.
Tim Kaine: 9-1. Virginia's governor, coming toward the end of his single term in office, speaks almost longingly about life after public office, about how he really does not need to stay in the limelight. More than most politicians at that level, Kaine can speak credibly about other things he might do in the next phase of his career--and nobody listening can think this would be a step down for him.
That said, he is both an ambitious fellow and the Virginia candidate who would be the most appealing nationally, presenting the most comfortable match with Obama. Kaine and Obama share similar Kansas roots, a Harvard Law School pedigree, and remarkably similar life paths, including time devoted to community organizing.
Kaine is more comfortable than most Democrats in speaking about the power of faith, and while he's not quite Mark Warner in his ability to connect with rural voters, the governor has shown a similar ability to couch traditional liberal views in language and gestures palatable to moderate and even mildly conservative voters. More so than Obama, Kaine has found ways to ease concerns that independent voters have about classic Democratic positions on guns and some social issues.
Kaine wouldn't help Obama much on the military/foreign front, and the timing for the governor is not good--Kaine is mired in a transportation funding mess that is likely to keep him in a frustrating and divisive stalemate with Republican legislators through a good chunk of this summer.
But if personal connections count, the Obama-Kaine relationship seems the closest of the three Virginia possibilities.
My bet: Obama picks none of the local candidates, choosing instead an older white guy with serious foreign policy experience. But beyond the fun of the parlor game, Virginia's role in this presidential campaign will be bigger than that played by any part of this region in many, many years.
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