WASHINGTON — With the Democratic nomination almost within his grasp, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama sometime soon will start the next great guessing game in American politics: Who will be his running mate?
Will he pick someone with expertise in foreign policy or national defense to offset his lack of experience? A governor from a battleground state with executive experience? How about a former rival — maybe named Clinton?
Obama won't talk about it yet, even if he's secretly running through the pros and cons of different names. That would appear presumptuous, even arrogant, as long as New York Sen. Hillary Clinton says she's still in the race.
"We haven't wrapped this thing up yet," he said Thursday in an interview with CNN. "At the point where I'm the nominee I'll start going through the process of figuring out what my running mate, who my running mate might be."
Nonetheless, he's started talking like he's looking beyond the primaries to the general election. Analysts agree and note that the first step to the fall campaign is picking a vice presidential candidate.
"Obama must soon turn to the choice of a running mate," said Gerald Pomper, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Pomper is among those who think Obama needs a national security expert to offset his lack of credentials, much as George W. Bush picked former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.
He also thinks that Obama needs someone who'd appeal to the white men he's been losing in primaries. Pomper's pick: Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia.
"In terms of background, Obama's defect is foreign policy, defense policy. Politically, his problem is white males," Pomper said.
"The primaries have shown he has a weakness among white males, a swing group, especially lower income and rural white males. Jim Webb meets both of those problems. His naval career virtually parallels (John) McCain. He's a tough-talking white guy."
Others are looking for more traditional balance, such as picking someone from a must-win state or a different region.
Or Clinton. A group called www.voteboth.com is pushing for what it calls a "dream ticket" of Obama and Clinton. Others are skeptical, saying that a black man and a white woman might be asking voters to buy too much change at once and that Obama apparently doesn't like Clinton.
"If synergy and chemistry are important, having her on the ticket just doesn't work," said South Carolina Democratic strategist Dick Harpootlian, an Obama supporter who wasn't speaking for the campaign. "And where does Bill fit in? It's like three on a date."
Here's a list of possible Obama running mates, with pluses and minuses:
_ Sen. Joe Biden, 65, of Delaware
With 36 years in the Senate and much of it spent on the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden has long experience in foreign policy circles. "He'd rather be secretary of state, but he'd accept it," said a Biden adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Biden also acquitted himself well in his brief and ultimately unsuccessful bid for the nomination himself, notably curbing his tendency to talk too much. Downside: His muzzle could fall off.
_ Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, 63, of Arkansas
As NATO commander, Clark oversaw the allied air war against Serbia that toppled dictator Slobodan Milosevic. He also ran for the nomination in 2004 and won a primary in Oklahoma. As a Clinton backer this year, he could help repair relations with Clinton supporters.
The negative: He had testy relations with other military officers that could come back to haunt him, and his political experience is thin.
_ Sen. Hillary Clinton, 60, of New York
She has deep support from working-class whites, women and older Democrats. Having her on the ticket could unify the party.
A lot depends on how she runs in the final weeks of the campaign, however. Obama and Clinton clearly don't get along, and a scorched-earth campaign against him would make that worse. Also, nobody knows how former President Bill Clinton would fit into an Obama administration.
_ Sen. Claire McCaskill, 54, of Missouri
An early supporter of Obama from a critical battleground state. Obama supporters think she's done well making the campaign's case on TV throughout the long primary campaign. She's also closer to Obama's generation than many other potential running mates, and a Roman Catholic — a swing voting bloc.
Downside: Elected in 2006, she has even less experience in national office than does Obama, elected two years earlier.
_ Gov. Bill Richardson, 60, of New Mexico
The resume candidate, with legislative experience in Congress, diplomatic experience at the United Nations and abroad, and executive experience as secretary of energy and governor. Also comes from a swing state and speaks to Hispanics, a key group Obama needs.
Downside: He couldn't win a single primary himself.
_ Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, 59, of Kansas
Popular two-term Democrat found a way to win in the heart of Republican country. Seeking a second term, she named a former Republican state party chairman as her running mate for her second term and increased her winning percentage to 58 percent.
Ancestry is important in the Sebelius equation: Her father, John Gilligan, was governor of Ohio, a swing state in the fall. And her state of Kansas was Obama's mother's home.
Downside: She has no foreign policy or national security experience, and she shares with all potential female running mates the possible liability that adding a woman to a ticket headed by an African-American might be overloading it with too much change for America to swallow.
_ Gov. Ted Strickland, 66, of Ohio
A popular governor of a critical battlefield state, Strickland also is a former Methodist minister who can speak to churchgoing voters often uncomfortable with the traditionally secular Democratic Party. He also helped deliver the state in the primaries for Hillary Clinton and could help Obama reach out to her supporters there and elsewhere.
Downside: It's debatable whether any vice presidential candidate could deliver his home state.
_ Sen. Jim Webb, 62, of Virginia
A former secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, Webb also was a Marine whose service in Vietnam was chronicled in the same book that highlighted McCain's service, "The Nightingale's Song." He also opposed the Iraq war like Obama and is popular in Virginia, a traditionally Republican state in presidential elections that Obama hopes to win. He too pulls votes from working-class whites.
Downside: Elected to office for the first time just 18 months ago, Webb is still newcomer to politics who sometimes has struggled to control his temper.