How will McCain Choose his Running Mate?

When John McCain eliminated viable competitors for the Republican presidential nomination last Tuesday, he set off the next round of parlor games among pundits and political junkies: Pick the VP.

On Friday McCain was asked about his criteria for picking a vice president. He responded:

“The process will begin and the fundamental principle behind any selection of a running mate would be whether that person is fully prepared to take over and share your values, your principles, your philosophy, and your priorities. I think that’s the first and only real criteria for the selection of a running mate.”

McCain also dismissed the notion that he must pick someone for geographic balance. He explained that, “From a practical standpoint, I think that former President Clinton and former Vice President Gore showed that you don’t have to be regionally different. I think that America is such now, that the quote, regional differences, don’t play the role that maybe they did in earlier times.”

Pat Toomey, head of Club for Growth (which had heavily criticized McCain throughout the primary campaign), offered up his own list in a column in the Wall Street Journal which included South Carolina’s Governor Mark Sanford and Senator Jim DeMint, Indiana Congressman Mike Pence, Former Texas Senator Phil Gramm and former presidential candidate and Forbes Inc. CEO Steve Forbes. However, DeMint (a strong opponent of McCain’s failed 2007 immigration reform bill) seems an unlikely match for McCain while Gramm and Forbes seem ideally suited for Treasury Secretary.

American Conservative Union (ACU) Chairman David Keene in an interview on Friday said that he liked Sanford (who carries a lifetime ACU rating of 92% from his three terms in Congress), explaining that would help reassure conservatives and would provide McCain with a Washington outsider to balance the ticket. Sanford’s own reputation for fighting pork (he once entered the legislature with a pig under each arm) would make him an attractive pick for McCain whose eyes light up when the discussion turns to eliminating earmarks and excess government spending.

Newt Gingrich in an interview on “Good Morning America” threw out names including Sanford, Florida Governor Charlie Crist (who helped McCain secure Florida but is looked upon with suspicion by conservatives), and former Arkansas Governor and still-rival Mike Huckabee. He even suggested a “unity ticket” with Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. However, Huckabee — who has been widely criticized by conservatives for his fiscal record and lack of foreign policy acumen — would, in the words of Karl Rove, be “double trouble” for many in the GOP base. McCain himself has previously indicated that choosing Lieberman as vice president would be problematic, but that he would be on the short list for a top national security position.

Another name at the top of many pundits’ lists is Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty has shown his vote-getting ability in a “purple” state, is popular with social conservatives and is well versed in a range of domestic policy issues. His first term was a solid one — closing a budget deficit without raising taxes and reforming education — and remarkably conservative (he signed a law requiring a waiting period for abortions and one allowing carrying of concealed firearms). Although he did raise the cigarette tax in his second term he has continued to battle the state legislature on other tax increases. Moreover, he is a strong advocate for “Sam’s Club” (as opposed to country club) Republicanism, arguing for items not usually on the conservative wish list such as development of alternative energy sources and allowing drug importation from Canada. (Both items are favorite topics for McCain as well.) Thus, it’s not surprising that he was an early supporter of McCain and co-chair of his campaign.

One name unlikely to be on the list: Mitt Romney. The animosity between McCain and Romney was palpable throughout the race. Romney, who ran poorly in the South, would do little to extend McCain’s appeal there. If Romney continues to aspire to the presidency, it would have to be in his own right in 2012 or 2016.

As McCain considers these names and whatever others may be in his mind, several concerns will sway his thinking. First, the running mate’s vote-getting ability can aid McCain in the South, the base of support in for the GOP in national elections for a generation, where his own appeal has been limited. Although he disclaimed the need for regional balance, a choice such as Sanford or Mississippi Governor and former GOP Chairman Haley Barbour would boost his prospects of securing the South and enhance his appeal with social conservatives throughout the country.

Second, McCain in his own words is “older than dirt” and must frankly be wary of selecting another graying figure, especially if the opposing nominee is the youthful Barack Obama. As politically satisfying a choice as a figure such as Phil Gramm might be, his age (65 yrs. old) likely makes him a nonstarter. By contrast Pawlenty (47 yrs old) or the youthful and telegenic South Dakota Senator John Thune (also 47 yrs old) would provide a vigorous running mate, and one with a lifetime ACU rating of 87% to boot.

Third, it is often said that a vice presidential pick is only consequential if it engenders controversy. In McCain’s case this would likely eliminate pro-choice politicians such as former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge or Rudy Giuliani. This would also include Huckabee, who would inflame both fiscal and national security conservatives.

Fourth, McCain may be advised to select a “diversity” running make to counteract the appeal of a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama (or both on the same ticket). Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (who certainly comes from as far outside Washington as you can get) or Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson may therefore make the short list. Nevertheless, McCain may recognize that a “diverse” VP pick is unlikely to substantially alter the Democratic nominee’s advantage in drawing women and/or minority voters.

In sum, with an ill conceived pick McCain can pour salt in the wounds of the conservative base. With a solid one he can signal a willingness to build a bridge to the GOP base, enhance his domestic policy credentials and electoral prospects and select a plausible #2 in a time when all presidents must be concerned about a successor. Conservatives will be watching carefully — and making their preferences clear — as the presumptive nominee makes his first major decision.