Obama VP rumor an example of how names get out

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 29, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Ann Veneman's putative vice presidential candidacy apparently came and went quickly, but left some political lessons in its wake.

What, you missed it?

The Modesto, Calif., native and former agriculture secretary is now the latest case study in how trial balloons get floated, and why. Late last week, two anonymous Democratic lawmakers told the Politico newspaper that Veneman's name was being mentioned as a potential running mate for Democrat Barack Obama.

Veneman is a loyal Republican. Her selection, or even her serious consideration, would be a remarkable step for the Democratic presidential candidate. A little too remarkable, apparently.

On Tuesday, Veneman's spokesman said she was paying attention only to her work as executive director of the United Nations Children Fund, better known as UNICEF. By itself, that's not precisely a denial. In context, though, the word out of Veneman's office appears to squelch the gossip.

"She has not been contacted by the (Obama) campaign and is solely focused on her current travels and the important mission of UNICEF," the agency's media chief, Christopher de Bono, said by e-mail Tuesday.

Still, in today's wired-up world, even a transitory candidacy can achieve archival permanence. Veneman's Wikipedia page now includes reference to Obama campaign's reported interest in her.

Officially, the Obama campaign is keeping tight wraps on the vice presidential search. Veneman is traveling in Madagascar and Mozambique this week, and could not be reached directly to comment. The Bush administration moved Veneman to UNICEF in 2005, after she served as the first female secretary of agriculture. Bush's father had appointed Veneman the first female deputy secretary of agriculture in 1991.

Now 59, Veneman also served a mid-1990s stint as secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. There's no sign she worked closely with Obama during their overlapping times on Capitol Hill.

Then again, potential candidate names may become public in several ways and for several reasons.

"I don't think her name is being floated around as the actual candidate," Jeff Cummins, assistant professor of political science at California State University at Fresno, suggested Tuesday. "It is more likely that ... she possesses some of the attributes that the VP search team may be seriously considering. They may be seriously looking at the reaction to a Republican being on the ticket."

The Politico attributed the Veneman option to "two Democrats familiar with the conversations" between members of Congress and the Obama campaign team. Obama's vice presidential vetters, led by Caroline Kennedy and former deputy attorney general Eric Holder, have been meeting with many Democrats. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, for instance, privately met with the Obama vice presidential team on June 17. Boxer said a number of familiar names came up, none of them surprising. Obama's team had a similar meeting on June 18 with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Reporters and political operatives share an interest in airing names of potential vice presidential candidates. New names justify new stories for reporters, now in a fallow pre-convention period. Political operatives, in turn, float names to maintain campaign buzz, gather preliminary reactions and give a shout-out to different constituencies.

Theoretically, Veneman offers several political benefits. Her home state commands a hefty 55 electoral votes, she presumably appeals to rural areas, her selection would demonstrate bipartisanship and she could appeal to women voters.

"Depending on the reaction, the campaign may adjust their strategy," Cummins noted. Realistically, the Democrats can already rely upon California — a state Democratic presidential candidates have taken in the past four elections. Veneman's own political standing might still be shaky in pivotal rural states, where she clashed with key Democrats over the 2002 bill.

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