The governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, was led around like a prize bull by Hillary Clinton's aides at a big Democratic gala in Des Moines, Iowa, last weekend. He was on display so that Clinton could give him a shout-out from the stage. With his support, she told the crowd of 9,000 party activists, she would carry the big swing state of Ohio in the general election (unlike John Kerry last time) and, as a result, win the presidency.
Strickland, who is highly popular with his state's voters, had endorsed Clinton the day before, renewing speculation about his own future. "I have said repeatedly that I am not presumptuous enough to think that I would even be considered for the vice presidency," said Strickland. "But if I was, I have no interest at all in the vice-presidency. . . I love being the governor of Ohio and will do whatever I can in that capacity to help Senator Clinton win. But you just can stop any thought of the vice presidency, that's not something that I'm interested in."
Nice try, Governor, but it looks like you just spouted one of the biggest lies in politics. Perhaps Strickland is an exception. But most ambitious officeholders would kill for the chance to be vice president.
Even before the first primary votes are cast, a hidden competition is going on for the second spot on both 2008 tickets. The vice presidency is one of the most reliable routes to becoming president, though it's considered unseemly, if not plain stupid, to openly covet the position. "It is the job nobody wants and nobody turns down," says Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee, himself the object of VP talk.
Subtlety is everything in a vice presidential campaign, which should never look like a campaign.
For one thing, the odds of ever getting picked are remote. For another, the heightened scrutiny that comes with being mentioned as a possible choice can bring to light embarrassing information that a candidate would rather keep hidden. Besides, it can diminish a politician's reputation to be thought of someone who'd be satisfied with second place.
That's especially true if you're running for president. Voters sometimes assume that a longshot contender - a Joe Biden, perhaps - must really be running for vice president. After all, he'd have to be delusional to think he could win the presidential nomination. So what's he really after?
Biden recently ruled out the vice presidency, at least with Clinton, who, he said, will win the nomination if he doesn't. Clinton already has a de facto running mate: her husband. "I love Bill Clinton but can you imagine being [her] vice president?" Biden told CNN. His remarks helped reinforce another line of thinking: Biden is really running for Secretary of State. (For the record, he's denied that, too.)
Huckabee has cleverly tried to turn such talk to his advantage, saying he took it as a compliment, not a put-down, to be considered vice presidential material. "Maybe I should be flattered people are saying at least I should be on the ticket. That's better than saying I shouldn't even be on the stage," he told reporters a few months back. Now, with his poll numbers rising, he's taken a different tack: candor. Huckabee isn't ruling out the vice presidency, thus reinforcing his image as a different kind of candidate in a year when voters say they're fed up with politics as usual.
A more traditional, which is to say disingenuous, approach comes from the other end of the pack - the front-runner who insists that he, or she, really hasn't given the matter a moment's thought. "If I am fortunate enough to be the nominee, I will then turn my focus on picking a running mate," Clinton told Ohio reporters who asked about Strickland's prospects.
Actually, presidential candidates constantly take the measure of potential ticket-mates, since over the course of a long campaign they will almost surely come in frequent contact with the person they ultimately choose. These days, Clinton campaigns across Iowa with Tom Vilsack, the state's ex-governor, who quit the presidential race and endorsed her candidacy. Vilsack is working feverishly on her behalf, auditioning for a spot in her administration, which he's likely to get if she wins Iowa en route to the White House.
With primaries fast approaching, the VP conjecture is ramping up in both major parties. This hot-stove discussion is highly entertaining, but it's usually misleading. The last time that no incumbent president sought re-election, in 2000, predictions about eventual VP choices were wildly off-base. Shortly before they were announced, veteran journalist Walter Mears, the last reporter to win a Pulitzer Prize for presidential campaign coverage, rattled off the names of more than a dozen likely choices. Neither of those who made it - Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman - were on the list.
At this stage, much of the talk centers on possible combinations of presidential contenders. What about a Clinton-Obama ticket? How about Giuliani and Huckabee? Governors of large swing states, whose electoral votes can decide a presidential election, always get attention, though no governor has been the VP nominee on a major party ticket since Spiro Agnew of Maryland in 1968. This time, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida is getting early mentions. So is Strickland.
In a brief interview, Strickland was asked which Republican presidential nominee would be the toughest for Democrats to defeat in Ohio, perhaps the biggest swing-state prize in 2008. His surprising answer: Mike Huckabee. Which actually makes sense when you think about it.
Huckabee is a fresh face, and he's spouting populist themes. He's also an ordained Baptist minister, which could give him unique appeal to religious voters, whose ballots may well have swung Ohio to the Republicans in the '04 presidential election.
As it turns out, the Democrats just might have an antidote: a Methodist minister who won a seat in Congress, then returned home and became governor by promising to follow "biblical principles" in leading the state. His name: Ted Strickland.
How to play the veep game
Deny any interest in the VP job.
Appreciate the honor of being suggested for the same.
Work tirelessly on behalf of the likely presidential nominee.
Be positioned to help the likely nominee win vital swing states.
Don't get suggested by the news media as a likely VP choice.
Make sure you don't have any dirty laundry to expose.
If leading the presidential race, say you haven't had time to think about running mates.