WASHINGTON — With their presidential nomination all but settled, Republicans now turn to the question that will dominate their spring: Whom will Arizona Sen. John McCain pick as his running mate?
Party activists are more interested than usual in his pick for three reasons:
- He needs to shore up support from conservatives, and the running mate is his best chance to do that;
- The vice presidential nominee could become first in line to win the nomination the next time it's open;
- It could come open sooner than eight years given McCain's age — he'd be 72 on Inauguration Day, the oldest person ever to start a presidency.
"A number of those factors are coming together to make this pick even more important than usual," said Greg Mueller, a conservative strategist and veteran of the Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes presidential campaigns.
"Usually with vice presidential candidates, you want somebody you can work with. You also want somebody who can draw some other voters. In this case it's so important that he pick a conservative so the conservative base feels they're invested in the campaign."
The name most discussed right now is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who continues to stay in the campaign despite the fact that he almost certainly cannot wrest the nomination away from McCain.
McCain campaign manager Rick Davis this week seemed to dismiss the prospect when asked whether Huckabee would bolster the ticket's chances at attracting change-minded voters.
"I'm not sure how much help John McCain needs being a change agent," Davis said. "That being said, I think we have other options to look at vis-à-vis the ticket."
Another frequently mentioned name is South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. More participants interviewed at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington put him at the top of their wish lists than any other.
McCain doesn't have to announce his pick for months — certainly not until he knows who the Democrats will nominate as his opponent, and perhaps not even until just before the Republican National Convention starts in St. Paul on Sept. 1.
But as he draws up his own list, here's a handy set of names, with the pros and cons of each most often mentioned by Republicans:
Haley Barbour, 60, governor of Mississippi
Pro: Popular former national party chairman helped Republicans win Congress in 1994 and got very good reviews for his leadership when Hurricane Katrina struck his state in 2005. Conservatives like his push for spending cuts. He gets along with the media.
Con: A long record as a Washington lobbyist that could clash with McCain's reform message. Also, he gets along with the media.
Charlie Crist, 51, governor of Florida
Pro: He's a popular governor whose endorsement helped McCain win the critical Florida primary. As running mate, he'd probably help put this big swing state solidly in the Republican column.
Con: His refusal to back an anti-gay marriage initiative and appointment of Democrats to head state agencies tar him as suspect to the party base. "He's too moderate," said one Republican strategist. "He's unacceptable to conservatives."
Mike Huckabee, 52, former governor of Arkansas
Pro: He's shown his ability to win in the South and has support among evangelical Christians. A solid social conservative.
Con: He raised taxes as governor and supported equal benefits for the Arkansas children of illegal immigrants. Picking him wouldn't excite conservatives.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, 64, senator from Texas
Pro: Offers a gender balance to the ticket and wins handily in mega-state.
Con: Support for financing embryonic stem-cell research worries social conservatives. Also, she's probably more interested in running for governor.
Joe Lieberman, 65, senator from Connecticut
Pro: The hawkish former Democrat-turned-independent endorsed McCain and campaigned with him. Also, as Democratic running mate in 2000, he's been there.
Con: He's still left of center on almost everything but the Iraq war. Conservatives would hate it.
Tim Pawlenty, 47, governor of Minnesota
Pro: Elected twice in a swing state. Solved budget crisis with spending cuts and no tax increases, endearing himself to conservatives.
Con: Couldn't deliver state caucuses for McCain; they went for Romney.
Condoleezza Rice, 53, secretary of state
Pro: First black woman on the ticket provides racial and gender balance against a Democratic ticket sure to have either a black or a woman.
Con: Nobody knows what she thinks about hot-button issues from abortion to taxes. Also, her record on Iraq and other security issues could provide a running debate with her own running mate, who criticized many of those stands.
Mitt Romney, 60, former governor of Massachusetts
Pro: He had some support from conservatives.
Con: Not enough support from conservatives to win. "He didn't really emerge as the conservative in the race," said one activist. Plus, McCain and Romney clashed bitterly in the primaries. "He's not on the list," said one strategist.
Mark Sanford, 47, governor of South Carolina
Pro: Young, vibrant conservative with a record of fighting spending while in the House, a McCain theme. "He would be a terrific pick," said Mueller.
Con: Wouldn't add a state to the McCain column. McCain should carry South Carolina without him.