By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
YORK, Pa., Aug. 12 -- The bay door opened under a giant American flag, John McCain's dark-blue Straight Talk Express bus rolled into the exhibition hall to the inevitable (in Pennsylvania, at least) strains of "Rocky," and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee emerged with not one but two of The Mentioned.
Long shots, to be sure. One of McCain's travel companions, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), has already run for vice president -- as a Democrat. The other, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, is a favorite son in this important battleground state but is considered suspect by much of the party's conservative base elsewhere. A front-page headline in Tuesday's Philadelphia Inquirer read "Ridge on McCain ticket? Not likely."
Still, their appearances here created a sense of deja vu to those following McCain as he prepares to make the most important decision he faces before accepting the Republican presidential nomination next month -- his choice of a running mate.
McCain, much like Democratic rival Barack Obama, has campaigned extensively with those thought to be on his shortlist, and the campaign has called upon the potential running mates often to promote the senator from Arizona on television and elsewhere.
Just Tuesday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty went on "Fox and Friends" to tout McCain's "wisdom" in his statements on the Russian invasion of Georgia. McCain's knowledge and experience would be a big benefit to voters choosing the next president, Pawlenty said.
But Pawlenty brushed aside questions about his vice presidential prospects, saying that he had gone on a fishing and innertubing trip over the weekend. He's "helping Senator McCain as a volunteer," Pawlenty said on Fox, in the first of his three television appearances scheduled Tuesday.
Another governor whose name has cropped up consistently in the mentioning, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, was booked to show the flag on Fox's "Hannity and Colmes."
It's either the world's longest audition or one of the most elaborate head-fakes in political history.
In truth, very few know who is on the really short list. The candidates are being vetted outside the campaign, and McCain aides say the decision is discussed only within a circle that includes McCain, wife Cindy and a small clutch of senior advisers.
On a plane ride last week, McCain told a few reporters he was confident there would be no unpleasant surprises about his No. 2, once he makes his choice.
"I certainly hope so," he said, adding quickly: "I'm convinced of it."
Asked whether he was satisfied with the process he put in place, he responded: "You are never satisfied. I would have liked to have selected yesterday." But, for a variety of strategic reasons, that choice is more likely to come after the Democratic convention ends on Aug. 28.
Yet public appearances such as those this week keep the speculation alive. Ridge and his family had a perch dinner with McCain on Sunday night, and the twice-elected governor accompanied the senator throughout the commonwealth over the next two days.
He gave a taste of what he'd bring to the ticket Tuesday with an appeal to Pennsylvania's independent voters, who he said will decide the race.
"Ladies and gentlemen, when you pick up the newspapers and look at the maps, there are red states and blue states. But we need a president who is red, white and blue," Ridge said. "And independents in Pennsylvania [are] going to support that red-white-and-blue candidate for president."
But when McCain was asked the day before about his first 90 days in office, he -- intentionally or not -- threw a little water on the burning speculation. He said he would "call Tom Ridge to Washington from whatever vacation he is taking, get him down there and get him to work." That did not sound as if Ridge would be busy moving into the vice presidential mansion at the Naval Observatory.
Ridge told the Inquirer he had not discussed the job with McCain. "If you cast a universal net, my name might be on the list," Ridge said. "But as the list narrows, I don't have a clue who's on and who's off.''
Lieberman is another McCain favorite, a frequent sidekick who has infuriated Democrats with his full-throated support of the Arizona Republican. At Tuesday's town hall, the sometime Democrat, sometime independent from Connecticut showed he had learned something from his experience running for vice president with Al Gore. He was far tougher on Obama than either Ridge or McCain.
The choice, Lieberman told a cheering, partisan crowd in this GOP stronghold, is "between one candidate, John McCain, who's had experience and been tested in war and tried in peace, and another candidate who has not. Between one candidate, John McCain, who has always put the country first, worked across party lines to get things done, and one candidate who has not.
"Between one candidate who's a talker and the other candidate who's the leader American needs as our next president."
Lieberman had the crowd so worked up, he had to calm them down.
"I'm just the warm-up act," he said with a grin.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.