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Picking a No. 2: the 'wow' factor

The Baltimore Sun

Before he reinvented government, Al Gore revolutionized the way vice presidents are made.

When he joined Bill Clinton's ticket, it violated the old rules. Regional diversity? Not with two Southerners from neighboring states. Ideological balance? A couple of left-of-center moderates. Age? Both younger than Barack Obama is today.

And yet, Gore has come to be regarded by strategists in both parties as the best vice presidential pick in at least 20 years.

"Everything about that ticket communicated change," say Michael Feldman, who worked in the campaign and became a senior Gore aide. "In an election that was very much about change, it was a winning combination."

Change is in the air again this year. Does that mean John McCain and Obama can - or should - come up with a Gore-like choice?

If they do, it will be a surprise.

"A big part of the Gore success in '92 was that it had such a large element of surprise," says Scott Reed, who managed the Dole-Kemp campaign four years later.

Handlers for Obama and McCain are trying to lower expectations and keep a lid on the process. They want to preserve the element of surprise when the announcements are made - perhaps not until late summer, just before the national conventions.

Obama "doesn't have a lot of good choices," insisted a top campaign aide, with a straight face. The Republican line: Our party's bench is very thin this season.

There are a few rules for choosing running mates: First, do no harm to your election chances. Second, pick someone who could take over as president. Third, get a compatible partner you can work with every day.

An inspired choice would generate a "wow factor" for the campaign. And that would advance the political goals: energizing supporters, making voters take a fresh look at the nominee and, if necessary, changing the dynamic of the election.

Getting someone who'd also help win a swing state would be "kind of a side benefit," according to David Plouffe, manager of Obama's campaign. He pointed out that Dick Cheney, whose selection as George W. Bush's running mate was widely praised at the time, comes from one of the safest Republican states in the country.

By now, it's fair to say that somewhere, online or in print, the eventual running mates for both parties have already been identified, and analyzed in depth.

One Democrat drawing attention lately as a Gore-like VP pick is Al Gore himself.

The case for Gore goes something like this: He's become an outsider but still knows how Washington works. He's got impeccable credentials on global issues, from climate change to national defense. That argument, however, overlooks the fact that, having done the job for eight years, he's extremely unlikely to want it again.

One intriguing possibility, if Obama doesn't target a single state or try to amplify the change message: Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island. That state's four reliably Democratic electoral votes aren't in doubt and Reed is unknown nationally, but he could help Obama in several ways.

He's a Catholic with working-class roots (his father was a school janitor), and could enhance the ticket's appeal to those swing voters. He has expertise on issues at the center of the campaign debate, economics and the housing crisis.

More important, he would offset Obama's lack of national security experience. Reed, 58, has a reputation as a serious thinker and is a respected voice on defense matters. He's a West Point graduate and an Army Ranger, with views that are right in line with Obama's. He voted against the 2002 Iraq war resolution and became an early critic of the way the war was fought while working to increase the size of the Army.

He's got an attractive wife and toddler at home, which might produce the sort of family tableau that boosted the Clinton-Gore ticket (Reed met his future wife, a Senate staffer, on an official trip to Afghanistan with McCain).

Like Obama, he's got a Harvard Law degree and spent time teaching at the college level (West Point). The two men are reported to have a good personal relationship.

Reed isn't flashy, and he wouldn't upstage the star. If he joins Obama's coming visit to Iraq (it would be Reed's 12th since the war began), his running-mate stock could soar.

For McCain, the underdog, the electoral map could demand a more conventional running mate.

That's why Mitt Romney has emerged as a consensus VP pick. He could help the ticket in many ways, including in the key state of Michigan, where he's got family ties.

But McCain doesn't like him. And for a guy who values his buddies much more than most politicians, the idea of having Mitt right down the hall for the next four or eight years could be extremely hard to swallow.

An alternate possibility: Rob Portman. A former congressman from Ohio - a must-win state for Republicans - he's got expertise where McCain is weak, on economics. He's been the nation's budget director and top trade negotiator. He's well-liked by members of both parties in Congress, where he once worked as a White House lobbyist, and could help smooth over relations between a President McCain and his former colleagues on Capitol Hill.

His biggest liabilities are his long and deep Bush connections (he served both the current president and his father). Portman bailed out of the White House last summer, with an eye toward re-entering politics. At 52, he'd inject some youthful energy into the Republican ticket.

If Portman's Bush ties are too much to overcome, McCain could turn to a long shot who has escaped national attention: Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, 48, a popular politician with business and foreign-policy experience and a good personal relationship with McCain. He went against Romney and the Mormon Church to endorse McCain early, then stuck with him during the darkest hours of the primary fight.

A former ambassador to Singapore who worked in the Reagan White House, Huntsman is the son of a petrochemical billionaire, the wealthiest man in Utah - as reliably Republican as Rhode Island is Democratic, and with almost as few electoral votes.

On a personal level, Huntsman and McCain both have adopted children from Asia (Huntsman's are from China and India; McCain's from Bangladesh). Their moderate-conservative political views are in sync, and Huntsman has gone out of his way to praise McCain's stance on immigration reform.

Their states share a border, so McCain and Huntsman, a pair of Westerners, would offer voters neither ideological balance nor geographic diversity. An unlikely pairing, it would seem.

Sort of like Clinton and Gore.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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