WASHINGTON - Despite weeks of steadfast rejections from Sen. John McCain, some prominent Democrats are angling for him to run for vice president alongside Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, creating a bipartisan ticket that they say would instantly transform the presidential race.
The enthusiasm of Democrats for McCain, the Arizona Republican, is so high that even some who have been mentioned as possible Kerry running mates - including Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator - are spinning scenarios about a "unity government," effectively giving Kerry a green light to reach across the political aisle and extend an offer.
"Senator McCain would not have to leave his party," Kerrey said. "He could remain a Republican, would be given some authority over selection of Cabinet people. The only thing he would have to do is say, 'I'm not going to appoint any judges who would overturn Roe vs. Wade,'" the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, which McCain has said he opposes.
Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who once worked for Kerry, said such a ticket "would be the political equivalent of the Yankees signing A-Rod," referring to Alex Rodriguez, the team's star third baseman.
Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, "continues to be interested in" McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran whom Kerry aides describe as the candidate's best friend in the Senate, as a running mate, said one long-time Democratic official who works for the Kerry campaign.
But the official said the plan was unrealistic, because McCain "won't do it." In an interview yesterday, McCain said, "I have totally ruled it out."
Even so, Democrats say a bipartisan Kerry-McCain ticket, featuring two decorated Vietnam War veterans from different parties and regions of the country, would give them a powerful edge in the debate over who can best lead the nation in the war on terror. "It would be a dream team," Lehane said.
This kind of open speculation suggests that Democrats are so eager to regain the White House in November that they are willing to overlook members of their own party, and to accept a candidate who disagrees with one of the core tenets of their platform, the right to an abortion. No Democrat stands out as an obvious vice presidential pick.
At the same time, the Kerry-McCain talk is testimony to the close friendship between the two, and the cool relationship between McCain and President Bush. The senator from Arizona is co-chairman of President Bush's re-election campaign there, but it is no secret in Washington that McCain has not quite forgiven Bush for the bitter attacks on him during the 2000 Republican presidential primaries.
Kerry defended McCain then, and the Arizona senator returned the favor in March, dismissing suggestions by the Bush camp that Kerry is weak on defense. "If you don't stand by your friends if they are unfairly attacked," McCain said yesterday, "then you've lost your bearings."
The two men talk on the phone periodically, most recently a few days ago. On the campaign trail, Kerry drops McCain's name almost daily. Yesterday, he invoked McCain - a former prisoner of war - at a news conference when asked whether he thought pictures of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison should be released to the public.
"I think John McCain really had the right formula, personally," he said, referring to the Arizona senator's suggestion that the pictures would eventually find their way into public view, and should be put out in an organized fashion.
Despite McCain's protestations that he would not be Kerry's No. 2, Nelson, of Florida, said he had spoken to McCain and Kerry campaign officials about it.
"There's a collective sigh that says, 'This feels right,'" Nelson said yesterday, adding, "I think it's very plausible that, with Iraq still in chaos, that if offered to him, he would say it's time for me to go serve my country again in another capacity, where I can do some good."