25 August 2008

The Veepstakes, Part VIII: McCain's turn

Sen. Obama's choice of Sen. Biden as his VP points to one inescapable conclusion: The Changemaker has taken off the gloves and is clearly bracing for a 70-day brawl. Sen. McCain is expected to name his #2 on Friday -- his 72nd birthday -- the morning after the Messiah's acceptance speech in front of 70,000 disciples in Denver.

The GOP field has settled during the last month. Instead of a sizable top tier, the group of favorites has dwindled down to four, and possibly just three. The leaders, four days out:

Mitt Romney is the clear favorite and deserves two paragraphs.

Three months ago, it was almost unthinkable. But McCain has buried the hatchet with his biggest adversary from the primary season, and Romney has quickly become McCain's most loyal surrogate. (Whether the two men actually like each other is a different story.) Like Obama's choice of Biden, McCain's choice of Romney would shore up the candidate's most glaring weakness -- in this case, it's the Senior Senator's lack of interest in economic issues. Romney is expected to help in Michigan (where his father was governor) and in a number of Mormon-heavy battlegrounds out west. In addition, the base likely would rally around the guy that the Republican establishment backed so stridently during the primaries, ensuring that McCain would have the backing of a unified party.

The downside? First, Romney is a flip-flopper -- during the primary season, I termed him the GOP's answer to John Kerry. Second, he and McCain went at each other hard during the winter and spring, and it's likely that Obama could air some of the candidates' primary-season dirty laundry, much like McCain has (wisely) done concerning the Obama-Biden relationship. Third, resident wingnut Mike Huckabee clearly reviles Romney, and I'm worried that the supporters of Gov. Falwell -- er, Huckabee -- could incite a mini-revolt. (I'm assuming, by the way, that most of Huckabee's vitriol for Romney is because the latter is Mormon. In Mike Huckabee's world, I don't doubt that such things are of paramount importance.)

2. Tim Pawlenty: Unlike Romney, the 47-year-old governor of Minnesota has been in McCain's corner since day one. Pawlenty clearly puts Minnesota in play, a state that hasn't gone Republican in more than a generation and that Obama badly needs to win. He would bring a fresh face to the scene, and become the standard-bearer that virtually all conservatives could rally around. Like Romney, Pawlenty brings executive experience and is a Washington outsider. Unlike Romney, however, Pawlenty comes from a blue-collar background (he coined the phrase "Sam's Club Republican") and is the first member of his family to go to college. On Oct. 2, McCain's veep will debate Biden on national TV, and McCain must decide whether the comparatively green Pawlenty is up to the challenge. It seems that Obama's choice of a seasoned veteran in Biden would drop Pawlenty's stock slightly.

3. Joe Lieberman: The bottom line is this: Obama's consistent line of attack against McCain is that he represents four more years of George Bush. This line is probably rendered moot if McCain picks a guy who voted with the Democratic Party 70% of the time in 2007. Conservatives need to suck it up: Joe Lieberman would be a tremendous choice, and would have great appeal to disenchanted HRC supporters, Reagan Democrats and those sick who are of Bush yet mistrusting of Obama. There has never been anything remotely like a McCain-Lieberman ticket. The political landscape would be dramatically recast. While some conservatives would be upset, Obama and Biden would be left stammering.

4. Tom Ridge: Picking a pro-choice Republican would incite far fewer conservatives than choosing a pro-choice Democrat, but "the base" still wouldn't be pleased. If McCain thinks Ridge can plausibly swing Pennsylvania into his column, this is a decent choice. If not, the former Homeland Security chief simply doubles down on McCain's national-security credentials, and I don't think that's good enough. Lieberman would re-draw the map; although he has blue-collar appeal, Ridge clearly won't.

5. Bobby Jindal: Especially given the choice of Biden -- 28 years his senior -- and that Jindal's resume is about as thin as Obama's -- the first-term Louisiana governor's star is falling. But McCain is intrigued by the reform-minded Jindal, and he, like Pawlenty, Romney and others, will make a speech at the convention in early September.

6. Sarah Palin: Like Jindal, the 44-year-old governor of Alaska's stock has fallen. But I like the choice of Palin immensely, as McCain could first, symbolically reach out to disaffected female voters and second, introduce a true Washington outsider to the race. I just don't think McCain will reach this far.

7. Charlie Crist: HRC would have put Crist's home state of Florida in play, but McCain should beat Obama there without the help of the Sunshine State's popular governor on the ticket. Crist is a very moderate Republican -- remember, the ticket already has one of those -- and it's not clear that despite his immense popularity, he would add much.

8. Meg Whitman: I don't get it, but McCain seems to think that the former eBay CEO is veep material. I hope his handlers talk him out of it.

9. Condoleeza Rice: I still believe Condi is McCain's best choice, her ties to the Bush administration notwithstanding. But unless the Senior Senator is playing his cards extraordinarily close to the vest, she isn't under serious consideration.

10. Michael Bloomberg: Another terrific outside-the-box choice. Given his withdrawal from the GOP several years ago, as well as his strident opposition to the Iraq war, however, I'm not seeing it.

Overall, McCain has made considerable headway to effectively pull even with the Changemaker. At this point, the Senior Senator has a 50-50 chance of finally realizing his longtime presidential ambitions, despite the unpopularity of the Republican brand and the Pope of Hope's monstrous, delusional following. On August 11, I wrote that if McCain picked Romney, I'd jump out the window. Today, however, given the state of the race, it seems to be a safe choice.

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