Last week, the word swept through Washington: During a fire drill, Sen. Evan Bayh was seen leaving his office building alongside Jim Johnson, the man charged with helping Sen. John F. Kerry pick his running mate.
Their appearance -- the two smoked out, as it were -- was immediately taken as a sign that Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, had landed on Kerry’s short list of vice presidential prospects.
Never mind that neither Bayh nor Johnson would talk to reporters about their discussion. Or that Johnson has been meeting on Capitol Hill with many Senate Democrats, and some in the House as well. In the absence of hard information, rumor and gossip are filling the void left by Kerry’s silence over one of the most important decisions the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee will make.
“It will say a lot about what he sees as his weaknesses and strengths,” said Donna Brazile, who managed Democrat Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.
Speculation abounds, vice presidential chatter being to Washington what Oscar rumors are to Hollywood. The Hotline, an online compendium of political news read religiously by campaign junkies, lists more than 60 names that have been bandied about, some more seriously than others.
Among the more far-fetched: NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, Christie Whitman -- President Bush’s former environmental czar -- and little-known Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas, hardly a state Kerry is likely to target.
Kerry’s deliberations have drawn even more than the usual attention because of a debate among Democrats on whether he should break with tradition and pick a running mate sooner -- in May or June -- or wait until closer to the Democratic National Convention in late July.
Kerry has been steadfastly closemouthed.
“I will choose a vice president sometime between now and the convention, period,” the Massachusetts senator said in a recent appearance on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
Aides say Kerry’s discretion stems in part from his unhappy experience as one of three finalists on Gore’s list. The others were Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the eventual pick, and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who is widely believed to be on Kerry’s short list.
When word surfaced of his status, Kerry confirmed he had shipped reams of personal information to the Gore camp. And he lived with cameras staked outside his home until several days later, when Lieberman’s selection was announced a week before that year’s Democratic convention.
This year, Kerry “wants to minimize the spectacle of the 2000 process,” said Michael Meehan, a longtime advisor.
Kerry faces a raft of political considerations as he weighs his options. Should he pick a candidate who might help capture a swing state, such as Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (whom Kerry campaigned with Sunday), or one of Florida’s two U.S. senators, Bob Graham or Bill Nelson?
Or should he send a message about ideological balance by choosing someone such as Bayh or Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, from the party’s centrist wing?
Kerry gets lots of input on the subject while campaigning. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), during a recent appearance with Kerry in Des Moines, delivered a not-so-subtle hint about whom he would like to see as the candidate’s running mate.
Comparing Kerry to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harkin noted that FDR found one of his vice presidents in Iowa -- Henry Wallace -- then added: “Once again, Iowa has a proven statesman in our great governor, Tom Vilsack.”
Those who know Kerry say his silence on the subject reflects genuine uncertainty. One strategist who played a role in several important campaign moves said it would be unlike Kerry to make up his mind until the last minute.
Complicating Kerry’s decision is the recognition that every potential running mate has negatives to offset assets.
Take Gephardt, who is thought to be a Kerry favorite. His extensive campaign experience and worn-shoe familiarity make him less likely to stumble as a vice presidential candidate. But the same characteristics also suggest his selection would be something less than electrifying.
Similarly, there are strong arguments for and against picking a running mate weeks ahead of the July convention.
To Democrats worried about Kerry as having a blurry public image and vague message, an early pick would signal boldness and might help flesh out his political and policy priorities.
And advocates of an early selection say it would double the ground Democrats cover on the campaign trail as well as take pressure off Kerry to personally answer every Republican attack. “We need somebody who can take some incoming for John Kerry,” said Jenny Backus, a party strategist in Washington.
But those who prefer that Kerry wait say drawing out the process keeps hope alive for a long list of Democrats who may be less motivated to help the ticket once they are passed over.
“Hope spurs them to campaign hard, raise money and attack George Bush,” said Paul Begala, a former advisor to President Clinton, who waited until close to the 1992 convention to pick Gore for his ticket. “Why replace 12 people attacking Bush with just one?”
Moreover, many view the convention in Kerry’s hometown of Boston as a singular opportunity to seize the public’s attention -- more than 10,000 reporters are expected to attend. “There is great benefit in having the story come out during the convention,” said a Democratic strategist with ties to the Kerry camp, who would only discuss the selection process anonymously because of the candidate’s wishes. “Otherwise, the convention coverage will be: ‘I-93 was closed for four hours and somebody from Guam couldn’t get into the convention center.’ ”
Regardless of timing, political veterans emphasized the importance of a thorough vetting of Kerry’s pick to avoid surprises.
“Don’t let anybody speed up the research,” said Tony Coelho, a former congressman from Merced who served for a time as head of Gore’s 2000 campaign. “Don’t pay attention just to political types who tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. Don’t pay attention to pollsters or the media or political consultants who’ve represented these candidates in the past. Do your own independent research.”
Those under serious consideration will be asked to furnish the Kerry campaign with volumes of information. Everything from their health records to their tax returns to the charities they support, the investments they have made and the organizations they have addressed are likely to come under scrutiny.
For that reason alone, many doubt that Kerry will announce a running mate anytime soon.
The handful of people who are privy to the candidate’s thoughts -- and are not just extrapolating from fire drills or the seating chart at Kerry campaign events -- are not talking about the selection process. At headquarters, insiders say, only Johnson and campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill have discussed the matter with the candidate. Others expected to weigh in include Bob Shrum, Kerry’s lead strategist; the candidate’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry; and his brother, Cameron.
Johnson, meantime, is quietly making the rounds of Democratic leaders, labor groups and others, seeking input and giving away nothing.
“I’ve known Jim for 25 years,” said Tom Nides, a former Lieberman advisor who recently had a dinner with Johnson to discuss the vice presidential search. “It was a completely one-way conversation.”
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Handicapping the ticket
Here are pluses and minuses for five Democrats frequently mentioned as Sen. John F. Kerry’s potential running mates, as analyzed by Times political reporter Mark Z. Barabak:
Sen. John Edwards, 50, North Carolina
* Charisma and optimistic message make him a favorite among many Democrats.
* Fundraising base among trial attorneys could generate significant contributions.
* Might make Democrats more competitive in a handful of Southern states.
* Doesn’t share the best personal chemistry with Kerry.
* Obvious lack of substantive foreign policy experience.
Rep. Dick Gephardt, 63, Missouri
* Plenty of national campaign experience, having run twice for president and campaigned for numerous Democrats.
* Comes from a state expected to be crucial to deciding the election.
* Has Kerry’s personal respect.
* A 26-year congressional record makes him ripe for examination and criticism.
* As former Democratic House leader, is the very personification of a Washington insider.
Gov. Bill Richardson, 56, New Mexico
* A garrulous personality with a long resume, including stints in the House and as U.N. ambassador and Energy secretary under President Clinton.
* Presumably would help nail down the swing state of New Mexico.
* Latino background (his mother was Mexican) would make his selection historic and could boost Latino support for Kerry.
* Controversies over security lapses at U.S. nuclear facilities during his watch at the Energy Department.
* Has never run nationally and experienced the intense personal scrutiny of a presidential race.
Gov. Tom Vilsack, 53, Iowa
* Compelling life story as an orphan who overcame an abusive foster home.
* Neutral during Iowa caucuses, but his wife endorsed Kerry when the senator’s campaign appeared finished.
* Could probably nail down Iowa, a state both campaigns are targeting, and help across the Farm Belt.
* Little-known nationally, even as chairman of the Democratic Governors Assn.
* Voters may question whether he has the experience to step in as president.
Gov. Mark R. Warner, 49, Virginia
* Election in 2001 in Republican-leaning Virginia made him one of the party’s rising stars.
* Campaigning as a fiscal conservative and a moderate on gun issues, he ran well in rural parts of the state normally hostile to Democrats.
* Background as a high-tech executive and fresh-faced good looks give him a youthful, forward-looking image.
* Tax-hike proposal to help solve Virginia’s budget problems could undercut his centrist credentials.
* Questionable whether he could help Kerry win Virginia, much less any other Southern state.