A few tips on rolling out a vice president

The Baltimore Sun

Anyone who has followed the career of Steve Jobs knows that product rollouts can be richly rewarding. Barack Obama and John McCain would like nothing better than to copy Apple's success when they bring their own new products to market soon: their running mates.

Vice presidential nominees don't win elections, despite all the hype surrounding their selection. Still, the choice of a ticket mate is often the biggest news story between the primaries and the November vote, invariably described as the first "presidential" decision by the man who hopes to lead the country.

Properly orchestrated, the announcement of a running mate can also provide a powerful political lift. It is a rare moment when a presidential candidate is in complete control of events, which he can use to dictate the way that the nation views him.

"The rollout," said Republican consultant Scott Reed, "is sometimes as important as the pick."

Here are six rules for successfully introducing a VP nominee, based on interviews with strategists from both parties, including those with firsthand experience.

* Do your homework. The first and most obvious rule: Choose someone who won't hurt your chance of winning. That means researching, in excruciating detail, the background of each potential pick and, once chosen, preparing that person for the new role as number two.

No one wants to repeat Richard Nixon's mistake in hastily settling for Spiro T. Agnew, a corrupt Marylander later forced to resign the vice presidency.

Nixon's 1972 challenger, George McGovern, en route to losing 49 states that year, forced his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, to quit the ticket amid questions about his mental health. Eagleton had neglected to disclose that he'd been treated for depression with electric shock treatment. He was replaced, after 18 days as vice-presidential nominee, by R. Sargent Shriver of Maryland.

* Avoid surprises. Politicians hate surprises. So once the choice is made, it's wise to alert friends and supporters.

A mass media leak is an easy way to send a signal. But sometimes, targeting the message makes better sense.

After 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole had settled on Jack Kemp as his running mate, he touted Kemp in a phone call to columnist Robert Novak, a trusted conservative voice, who quickly spread the word that Kemp was a serious contender.

* Preserve the element of surprise. Keeping a lid on the VP pick can be as important as protecting details about the latest iPhone or iPod. It's a test of a candidate's ability to impose corporate-style discipline on his campaign. And it's also a way of generating maximum exposure - by getting coverage for the rumor and the news.

Obama's campaign, which prides itself on tight message control, has promised supporters that they'll be the first to know. All they need to do is send a text message or e-mail address (enhancing Obama's ability to mobilize his base by providing more contact information). He'll text back the name of his running mate before a public announcement.

It's a clever high-tech twist, but not entirely original. Four years ago, John Kerry mass-e-mailed a million supporters with the news that he was picking John Edwards moments before he announced the decision.

* Timing is everything. Rolling out a running mate should generate a positive bounce in the polls that lasts at least several days. Non-incumbent presidential candidates, like Obama and McCain, can expect a gain of 3 to 9 points after making the announcement, according to a recent Gallup analysis of poll results going back to 1996.

Timing this year particularly favors McCain, who can use his pick to suppress any bounce Obama gets from next week's Democratic gathering in Denver.

In 2000, when Al Gore tapped Joseph Lieberman, he cut George W. Bush's post-convention lead in half, according to Gallup. Many Republicans expect McCain to spring his choice as soon as his rival's convention ends.

* Get the money shot. Images of the newly minted ticket, together for the first time, are destined to rocket around the world, in newspapers, on TV and online.

"The visual is really important," said Tad Devine, who has had key roles in several Democratic presidential campaigns. "It can even be a turning point."

He traced Bill Clinton's upward trajectory in the 1992 election to the moment that the new, youthful Democratic ticket first posed for photographers.

This year's initial images, of Obama, McCain and their running mates, won't be static shots. Video clips of the event are destined for YouTube (which didn't exist four years ago), putting added pressure on all concerned to avoid a slip that could be replayed endlessly.

* The first 48 hours are key. VP nominees tend to get forgotten after the convention, re-emerging just once, in October, for a televised debate.

"If it's a good choice, you never look back," said Reed, who managed the '96 Dole campaign. "If it's a poor choice, you spend the next 60 days worrying about the other plane" - the one with your running mate's entourage.

In 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush broke almost all the rollout rules when he chose Dan Quayle as his successor. He made his mind up late, kept it a secret from many in his own circle and left campaign aides too little time to prep the 41-year-old senator.

Bush's surprise decision, sprung on Republican delegates on the second day of the convention, became a major distraction after questions emerged about Quayle's Vietnam-era service in the National Guard.

"It was my decision, and I blew it," Bush confided to his diary as convention week ended.

Quayle never really recovered from his disastrous debut. Four years later, he became a scapegoat for Republicans nervous about the party's chances, who wanted him dumped from the ticket. Demands for his removal continued right up to the convention, less than three months before Bush and Quayle lost their re-election try.


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