GREENBELT — GREENBELT - At a banquet hall in the Maryland suburbs, Kristi Anderson sidled up to Sen. John Edwards yesterday and predicted his future.
"I expect you to be our next vice president," gushed the 56-year-old Silver Spring physical therapist, as Edwards beamed.
Edwards, runner-up in the Democratic presidential contest, is generating the loudest buzz as a possible running mate for Sen. John Kerry. But Kerry isn't talking publicly about the vice-presidential search, except to caution everyone not to believe news accounts about his deliberations.
Kerry says he hasn't made a decision yet and that "I'm the only person who knows" when the choice will be announced or who it might be - "and I intend to keep it that way."
There was considerable speculation that he would break with tradition and reveal his choice earlier this spring. Kerry didn't. But that hasn't stopped many of the same people from confidently predicting who will wind up in the No. 2 slot on the Democratic ticket.
Among those being prominently mentioned is Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a defeated primary rival who met privately this week with Kerry at the Capitol in what was widely assumed to be a discussion about the vice presidency. Gephardt, a favorite of organized labor, would presumably help the ticket in the Midwest and especially his home state of Missouri, a battleground that Democrat Al Gore lost narrowly in the last election.
Other vice-presidential possibilities include New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Hispanic with potential appeal in key Southwestern states; Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack; and fellow Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Bob Graham of Florida.
Kerry's willingness to make an unconventional choice - he had a number of ultimately fruitless conversations with Republican Sen. John McCain - has prompted some to wonder if a long-shot pick may emerge from the selection process. In that category would be former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, a Kerry adviser on defense issues; former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, a Maine Republican; and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, whose father is a former governor of Ohio, another electoral battleground.
Along with Kerry, and possibly his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, the only people who are thought to know all the details of the search are James Johnson, a Washington executive who heads the selection process, and Kerry's campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill.
"They seem to have handled this about as well as they could have at this point," said Steve Richetti, a former Clinton White House aide, who praises Kerry for going about his search in a deliberative manner and protecting those he is interviewing from "collateral discussion."
In the past, many politicians have suffered embarrassment by being publicly considered, and then rejected, for the vice presidency - including Kerry himself four years ago.
With the Democratic convention in Boston just more than a month away, Kerry appears to be heading toward a running-mate announcement sometime in mid-July. That would give the campaign a week or two of pre-convention publicity, with the candidates appearing across the country, including in the home state of the person who is chosen.
"Our experience in 2000 was that it gave a boost to the campaign during the summer doldrums," said Doug Hattaway, a former adviser to Gore, who revealed his surprise choice of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman one week before the convention.
If recent history is a guide, Kerry's pick may also confound the experts.
"If you look at the past, they were all surprises, weren't they?" said Gordon Fischer, the Iowa Democratic chairman. "Joe Lieberman was a surprise. Al Gore was a surprise to many people when Clinton picked him. ... It all goes back to only one person knowing for sure."
This time, the Democratic consensus seems to be that Edwards will be Kerry's choice. Certainly, the senator from North Carolina, who is retiring after one term, is doing everything he can to make sure his '04 presidential primary run won't be his last campaign.
Edwards is maintaining an extensive travel schedule. He is speaking on Kerry's behalf at party events while making appearances for other Democrats, whose support could benefit Edwards some day, whether he is on the ticket this fall or not.
He was the draw at a fund-raising breakfast yesterday for Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, an Edwards supporter in the primaries. Later, the senator flew to Texas for Kerry fund-raisers in Houston and Dallas and a speech to the Texas Democratic convention. He is to speak tonight at a state party dinner in Baton Rouge, La., and has money-raising events next week in Alabama and Iowa.
"I'm just continuing to do what I've been doing, which is campaigning for Kerry around the country, not just Kerry, also some other people," said Edwards, who demurs when the topic turns to the vice presidency. "John has made it clear he wants this process to be quiet and confidential, and I think that's the way it should be."
Key members of the Edwards campaign have thrown themselves into the Kerry effort. Miles Lackey, formerly Edwards' chief of staff, is an increasingly influential member of Kerry's policy staff as deputy campaign manager.
A diverse, and growing, number of Democratic elected officials are urging Kerry to put the charismatic Edwards on the ticket as a way of energizing voters this fall. The group ranges from Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana centrist, to Maryland's Wynn, who sent a letter to Kerry in April with the signatures of 22 Democratic House members who back Edwards.
How much any of this will influence Kerry, who is reported to have held two private discussions with Edwards, is unclear.
Campaign manager Cahill also said recently that the war in Iraq had increased the importance of picking a vice president with "the stature" to handle national security.
Wynn acknowledges that the buzz about Edwards among Democratic politicians could amount to nothing.
"It's a funny thing," the Maryland congressman said in an interview. "Edwards has gained significant support, but it's not like a race where he controls his own destiny. He could have the greatest momentum in the world."
But in the end, only one vote counts: Kerry's.