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'High Risk, High Reward'

McCain's search for a running mate had started in the spring with about two dozen names. Palin was not a serious candidate. One person said she wasn't even on the initial list; others said she was -- barely. It was only later in the summer, when the campaign team became alarmed at the size of Obama's lead among women, that she was added to the list of genuine contenders. "Toward the end of the process, in July, we started taking a look at, like okay, who are we missing? Let's take a sharper look at women candidates and try that one more time," Davis said. "That's when Palin came on." Palin, he added, "stood out significantly from the rest of that list."

Eventually, McCain narrowed his choices to six finalists. In addition to Palin, they were independent-Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman; McCain's former rival, Mitt Romney; Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal might have been a finalist had he not taken himself out of contention.

Until days before McCain's deadline, Lieberman appeared to be in the lead, although one top official later said it was never as clear-cut as that. "If you characterize this as yes or no on Lieberman and then someone else [became the top contender], that's not it at all," he said. "Was he the romantic pick? Yes."

Certainly none of the others had the kind of relationship with McCain that Lieberman did. The senator from Connecticut ran for vice president with Al Gore on the 2000 Democratic ticket, but broke with his party over the war in Iraq. In August 2006, he lost his primary election to antiwar businessman Ned Lamont, who attracted enthusiastic support from liberal bloggers furious about Lieberman's support of Bush's war policies. Defeated, Lieberman ran as an independent and was reelected. McCain and Lieberman shared almost identical views on the war. If anything, McCain was a more vocal critic of Bush's policies, but both strongly opposed withdrawal timetables and believed victory could be achieved. They were steadfast in their views when public opinion about the war was running strongly in the other direction.

Lieberman traveled regularly with McCain, who loved him. He admired Lieberman's probity, enjoyed his corny Borscht Belt humor and most of all trusted his judgment. They differed on many aspects of domestic policy, but they saw a dangerous world through the same prism.

Advisers thought picking Lieberman would alter the race, particularly if coupled with the move McCain was seriously considering: a pledge to serve just one term. Virtually all his top advisers favored the idea. Such a pledge had long been talked about inside the campaign. At the time of McCain's announcement in April 2007, the draft of his speech included a statement that he would serve only four years. But Davis strongly opposed the idea, and McCain was dubious, believing that it would unnecessarily limit his power. The pledge was removed less than 24 hours before the speech, according to two advisers, but resurfaced as part of plans for a possible McCain-Lieberman ticket.

The appeal of picking Lieberman was that it would send a powerful signal that a McCain administration would represent an attempt to break out of partisan politics in Washington, that as president he would actively seek to build a governing consensus at the center of the electorate. The one-term pledge would add an exclamation point to this message, allowing McCain to argue that his administration would have but one goal: to clean up a toxic political system in Washington and take on the most intractable issues that had resisted solution without having to worry about how it might affect his reelection. By now, even Davis had softened in his opposition.

"My opposition to it in the primary was that it really was a cheap way to try to win the primary," he later said. "It wasn't worth making that sacrifice for a primary win. . . . That being said, I understood the need for a device like that if you were going to sell Lieberman, because Lieberman was going to be a hard sell."

Both Davis and Culvahouse raised the one-term pledge directly with Lieberman. "My answer to both of them was, 'Hey, guys, I didn't expect to be considered for vice president at all,' " Lieberman told us. "I still think it's a long shot, so you're asking if it happens would I agree to do it for only four years, that's an easy question. Of course I would." Even McCain had come around, according to his most senior advisers. "There would have to be a one-term pledge," one said. "McCain knew that."

McCain's team also knew there would be conservative opposition to Lieberman because of his support of abortion rights and gay rights. It developed a plan to reach out to delegates before the convention, with Charlie Black dispatched to St. Paul, Minn., early for that purpose. As late as the third week of August, the vetting operation was still working hard to finish Lieberman's background checks, questionnaire and personal interview with Culvahouse. Lieberman joked to Culvahouse that the questionnaire was so personally intrusive that the only thing he had not been asked was "whether I had had sexual relations with an animal." (Culvahouse's team found one potentially serious problem with picking Lieberman. Laws in some states prohibited a candidate from running for office from one party or another unless he had been registered with that party for a specified period of time. No one really wanted another Bush v. Gore to sully the 2008 election.)

Ironically, Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Lieberman's main advocates, hurt Lieberman's chances by talking openly about his possible selection, allowing conservative opposition to intensify. "Lindsey was out talking to people before he should have and the story got ahead of us," one McCain adviser said.

McCain's team had circled the three days between the Democratic and Republican conventions as the time to announce its vice presidential choice and scheduled big rallies on all three days to give McCain flexibility to make his decision. But they preferred Friday, Aug. 29, the day after the Democratic convention, as the best way to stop Obama's momentum.

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