Candidates tiptoe on the veep minefield

Times Staff Writer

Economic conservatives cringe at Mike Huckabee. Conservative evangelicals like Huckabee but wince at Mitt Romney. Gay rights activists are trying to rule out Sam Nunn. The women’s movement is wary of several prominent Democrats who support abortion restrictions.

That’s the minefield Barack Obama and John McCain are tiptoeing across as they choose their vice presidential nominees. The goal of each: to find a running mate who adds appeal to the ticket -- while steering around the candidates who would leave key groups angry and ready to abandon the party.

The tension is most pronounced among Republicans, a reflection of long-standing fault lines between the party’s social conservatives and the faction that focuses more on economic issues.


Conservative evangelicals, in particular, have a history of animosity toward McCain, the presumed GOP presidential nominee. Looking for a sign of commitment to their causes, many of them have urged McCain to choose Huckabee, a longtime pastor and former Arkansas governor with solid antiabortion credentials. Some are actively campaigning against Romney, who as Massachusetts governor had a mixed record on abortion and gay rights.

At issue for McCain is how much muscle social conservatives will put into helping his campaign. “The question is not whether social conservatives will hold their noses and vote for McCain; it’s will they knock on doors and plant yard signs,” said Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Assn. of Michigan.

For Obama, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, one key question is whether he will pick a running mate who might make up for his lack of foreign policy experience. That has led some to point to former Georgia Sen. Nunn, a military expert. But Nunn is suspect among gay rights activists, because in Congress he opposed measures to expand gay rights.

Another consideration for Obama is whether to reach out to frustrated supporters of his former rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), by putting a woman or even Clinton herself on the ticket. Further complicating his decision, Obama has heard complaints from women’s advocates about possible No. 2 contenders -- such as Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware -- whom they do not see as strong supporters of abortion rights.

“That is causing a lot of heartburn” for abortion rights supporters, said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women.

The decisions by Obama and McCain will be determined by a wide range of considerations, including personal chemistry and regional appeal. But while the candidates are looking at what qualities might help the ticket, they are hearing from various factions about potential disqualifying factors.


Many evangelical conservatives have bridled at reports indicating that Romney is a strong contender for the No. 2 Republican slot. Those reports have arisen frequently, because Romney’s business background is seen as complementing McCain’s resume, which is light on economics.

“We don’t have any faith that he will be consistent on the moral issues we really care about,” said Mike Fracassa, a vice president of Ohio Christian University, about Romney.

Last month, dozens of evangelical leaders met in Denver to talk politics. The group drafted a letter, which was hand-delivered to McCain, urging him to name Huckabee.

“Putting Gov. Huckabee on your ticket will immediately excite, mobilize and activate a key grass-roots constituency that is essential to your success,” the letter said.

Janet Folger, who heads a conservative group called Faith 2 Action, was more blunt. “Mitt Romney would be a disaster,” she said in an interview. “Mike Huckabee would be a home run.”

Economic conservatives and tax-cut advocates see things differently. Pat Toomey, president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, has criticized Huckabee for raising taxes as governor of Arkansas.


“Huckabee would be a disaster,” said Toomey. “It would thoroughly alienate economic conservatives.”

Many of the GOP’s business allies have no litmus test for McCain’s running mate and take a more pragmatic view of the decision.

“I care more about winning than anything else,” said one business lobbyist, who asked not to be named because his organization is neutral in the campaign. He said that former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge would be a big asset in an election in which his home state is crucial, but acknowledged that his support for abortion rights would make his nomination problematic.

“The right wing would go crazy,” the lobbyist said.

One of the riskiest choices McCain could make would be to tap Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who in Congress is aligned with Democrats, but who is supporting McCain and has been hawkish on the Iraq war.

Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, called Lieberman “completely unacceptable,” because he is liberal on most other issues.

For Obama, the choice of a running mate has the potential to help or hurt his effort to win over women who supported Clinton. When he met last week with female political activists in Washington, one participant drew applause when she suggested that Obama tap Clinton as his running mate.


Some Clinton backers, however, seem resigned to her not being chosen. Vote Both, a group established earlier this year to pressure Obama to put Clinton on his ticket, shut down its effort last week.

Gandy, of the National Organization for Women, said that Obama will take a great political risk if he does not name a woman, such as Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona or Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, to energize female voters. Furthermore, Gandy has told Obama advisors of her dismay that his short list reportedly includes so many men with mixed records on abortion.

Although they support the constitutional right to abortion, Biden, Bayh and Kaine all supported a ban on “partial-birth” abortions. “My fear is that there would be a lot of women, and any number is too many, who would say, ‘I think I will stay home’ ” on election day, said Gandy.

Gay rights advocates worry about reports that Obama was considering asking former senator Nunn to be his running mate. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Nunn resisted efforts to allow gays to serve in the military, and he voted against a bill to ban job discrimination against gay men and lesbians.

“It would be . . . a real problem if he were to pick Sam Nunn,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group. “The choice of a running mate for anyone running for president says a great deal about their decision-making and about their values.”