John Kerry’s Long Shortlist

Who he’ll pick as his running mate and why.

John Kerry is currently engaged in one of Washington’s most elaborate Kabuki rituals: the hunt for a running mate. Every four years, campaigns put vast effort into flattering political allies, pandering to interest groups, generating media buzz, and spreading disinformation. Richard Nixon is said to have advised the elder George Bush in 1988: “Once you get it down to two or three people, see to it that a dozen or so names get out in the press. It’ll be a sop to everyone on the list, and it will keep the press off the trail.” The press was diverted so well that Bush’s eventual choice of Dan Quayle triggered one of the madder feeding frenzies of recent memory.

Also confusing matters is that what used to be the chief rationales for picking a running mate are fading. It’s been a while, for instance, since a running mate was chosen to carry a major state. Today’s veepstakes involves more sophisticated factors. Here, then, is a taxonomy of some names in heavy circulation and why we’re hearing them.

Bring It On!
If a central theme of John Kerry’s candidacy is a fearless challenge to George W. Bush on national security, then why not add another set of (unthrown) medals to the ticket? The obvious choice here would be Wesley Clark, although his gaffe-plagued romp through the Democratic primaries is problematic. Clark’s fizzle may also bode ill for former Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, despite his new book eviscerating Bush’s Iraq policy. Who wants to take a chance on another general without campaign trail experience? Still, merely floating these names helps remind the public that Democrats can be tough guys, too. Also on this list: former Sen. Max Cleland.

The Wise Men
Instead of a military man, Kerry could go for a policy-wonk father figure who understands today’s global dangers—as Bush did in choosing Cheney last time. Topping this list is former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, who now obsesses over weapons of mass destruction at the Nuclear Threat Institute. Nunn has the added benefit of being a Southerner, although he would add to the ticket another inconveniently long Senate voting record. (Among other things, Nunn opposed the first Gulf War, a reason he didn’t run for president himself in 1992.) Also in this category is former New Hampshire GOP Sen. Warren Rudman who, like Nunn, has become a WMD specialist; former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, now the nobly nonpartisan vice chairman of the independent Sept. 11 commission; and, if you can get past the plagiarism that killed his 1988 presidential bid, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden.

Base Drums
These choices would help whip up liberal Democrats, who are far more animated by Bush-hatred than by Kerry-worship. The most touted name in this category is Dick Gephardt, reportedly a top contender at the moment, whose authentic populism and miles-deep roots with labor unions and other party interest groups make him a fine signifier of liberal passion. Drawbacks include Gephardt’s co-sponsorship of the Iraq resolution—heresy to some liberals—and the fact that he’s already flopped twice on the presidential campaign trail. A long-shot choice is House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a prolific fund-raiser beloved by women’s and gay-rights groups. But it’s hard to imagine a man scraping the “Massachusetts liberal” image off his shoe teaming up with a San Francisco liberal (think of the gay-marriage jokes). A choice harder to attack demagogically would be Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin.

Diversify the Portfolio
The real veepstakes contenders are usually almost all white men, but diversity-minded candidates float names of women and minorities to please interest groups and liberals. Hence another name on everyone’s short list is the charismatic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who might well excite the all-important Latino vote and help carry the Southwestern swing states of Nevada and New Mexico. Alas, Richardson carries a sherpa’s load of baggage from his disastrous tenure as Energy secretary. Oft-mentioned women include two attractive swing-state senators: Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. But both have thin records, and Democrats strongly prefer not to defend any more southern Senate seats. Some African-Americans get talked about, including Georgia congressman and civil-rights hero John Lewis and South Carolina power-broker Jim Clyburn. Also on this list: Former OMB director Franklin Raines, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

Mr. Popularity
Given Kerry’s charisma deficiency, he might want some fuel-injected charm at his side. John Edwards, whose blinding smile seduced so many crowds in the late primary season, could certainly help (if Kerry can forgive him for drawing out the primaries). Former senator and 9/11 commission member Bob Kerrey isn’t nearly as warm and smooth, but he does offer McCain-like qualities of heroism and straight talk (and wouldn’t Kerry-Kerrey have a cute ring!). The question here is whether Kerry could stomach having people like his running mate better than they like him. Other charmers: Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner.

They Don’t Mean a Thing If They Ain’t From a Swing
Several top contenders would never win a nationwide talent search but happen to hail from the right states. Hence the enduring appeal of Florida’s two Democratic senators, Bill Nelson and Bob Graham. We won’t bother rehashing Graham’s obsessive-compulsive diaries and tragically self-destructed reputation, but it’s all here. Nelson, meanwhile, offers the heroic patina of a former astronaut but less spark than a soggy matchbook. As a Catholic with a moderate profile on social issues, as well as a compelling biography, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack could shore up Kerry with blue-collar voters, but is otherwise humdrum. Still, one bankable state could make the difference. And for the same egotistical reasons Kerry may spurn an Edwards, a reliable dullard could be just what he wants. Also on this list, though getting old: former Ohio Sen. John Glenn.

In Your Dreams
The biggest absurdity of the Kerry veepstakes has been the lavish attention given to some people with almost zero chance of joining his ticket. Exhibit A is John McCain, who says vehemently and repeatedly that he won’t run with Kerry. But his name endures as Kerry allies, with cunning disingenuousness, repeat it to generate media coverage linking their man with America’s favorite politician. The media, unable to resist a good McCain story, eagerly play along. (Witness last week’s ridiculously overhyped Page One New York Times story, which spilled 250 breathless words before getting to McCain’s buzz-killing reaction: “I have totally ruled it out.”) There’s also Hillary Clinton who, as usual, constitutes a strange and unique case. She may be the first frequently discussed VP contender who neither wants the position nor is wanted by the nominee. Yet Hillary is cheered on both by clueless liberal fans who don’t realize how many enemies she’d bring out and by conservative haters who want to confirm their view of her as the Lady Macbeth of their fantasies. Again, the media happily goes along. No Hillary story is too stupid or far-fetched to merit a mention on Fox News or in a William Safire column. Also on this list: Former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

Having said all this, it should be noted that this prognostication is almost sure to be wrong. After all, few people saw Al Gore’s pick of Joe Lieberman coming, and everyone was blindsided when Dick Cheney’s search for a Bush running mate turned up none other than Dick Cheney. Then, too, in 1996 it seemed preposterous that a crotchety fiscal conservative like Bob Dole could choose a flaky supply-sider like Jack Kemp. Maybe folks were too distracted by other big names then in circulation, like a young GOP rising star: Texas Gov. George W. Bush.