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McCain decides on running mate

Times Staff Writers

John McCain will introduce his running mate today as he launches a five-day “Road to the Convention” tour with a rally designed to steal the spotlight from the Democrats on his 72nd birthday.

As Republicans begin heading to their own four-day convention in St. Paul, Minn., McCain kept a tight lid on his selection for vice president and the political calculations that got him there. The presumptive Republican nominee spent much of the last week at his compound in Arizona working on his acceptance speech, shooting a biographical film for the GOP convention, and, by his own account, making up his mind on a running mate.

An aide said that McCain reached his decision Thursday morning.

At least three of the most often mentioned possibilities -- former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and close McCain friend Joe Lieberman, the independent senator from Connecticut who was Democrat Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 -- will appear Saturday with McCain at a rally in Washington, Pa., according to a senior McCain aide.

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Whether that rules them in or out as McCain’s running mate is unclear.

McCain himself has given little hint of his preference other than that his choice must share his values and principles and must be qualified to step in as commander in chief. Along the way, McCain has weighed the relative merits of a disparate group of potential running mates, each with distinct pros and cons, in the fall contest against Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

To shore up concerns about the nation’s economic woes and McCain’s admitted lack of experience in that area, Romney would bring a record as a former business executive who earned hundreds of millions of dollars as the head of Bain Capital, a private Boston-based equity firm that bought and sold companies.

But Democrats already have tagged Romney as an anti-union “job-killing machine,” a charge that helped sink his 1994 bid to unseat Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Romney’s first bid for public office.

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Beyond that, McCain appeared to dislike Romney intensely when the two clashed in debates during the spring primaries. Aides say the two have buried their grudges, and McCain has publicly praised Romney in recent weeks.

If Romney is chosen, however, Democrats will focus on their former feud, such as Romney’s charge last spring that McCain would set a “liberal Democrat course as president” and his reminder that “McCain has said time and again that he doesn’t understand the economy.”

Another potential candidate, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, won reelection in 2006, withstanding a nationwide Democratic victory -- though barely. The 47-year-old lawyer is virtually unknown on the national scene, however, and his inexperience in national and foreign affairs could undermine McCain’s constant attacks that Obama is not “ready to lead.”

Pawlenty, who was at the Democratic convention in Denver as part of the GOP’s rapid-response operation, fanned speculation by abruptly canceling scheduled interviews Thursday afternoon, including one with The Times. He refused to comment on his prospects.

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“On issues related to the vice presidency, that’s obviously Sen. McCain’s decision,” Pawlenty said with a smile. “We’re going to let Sen. McCain make that announcement.”

As a fiscal conservative and evangelical Christian, Pawlenty could help McCain calm members of the party’s right wing who are nervous about McCain’s belated embrace of the Bush administration’s tax cuts and opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.

Pawlenty thus may have a leg up on several prospective running mates, including Ridge and Lieberman, who support abortion rights, and Romney, formerly a firm abortion-rights supporter who reversed position in 2004 and now declares himself “pro-life.” McCain has vowed to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortions nationally, but has struggled in his campaign to generate enthusiasm among social conservatives.

Lori Viars, a conservative activist in Ohio, said she had tentatively thrown her support behind McCain after his aides convinced her that he shared her views. “A lot hangs on the VP for me,” said Viars, who plans to attend the rally today in Dayton.

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If Romney is chosen, she predicted, many social conservatives will not contribute the legwork or money McCain will need this fall.

“I would be very upset,” she said, adding that the choice is a final test for McCain. “Social conservatives go by what you’ve done, not what you’re saying to us. That’s why we don’t buy Romney.”

When McCain disclosed in a recent newspaper interview that he was considering Ridge, who supports abortion rights, it sparked a storm of criticism that appeared to scuttle Ridge’s chances.

Moreover, Ridge’s much criticized record as the Bush administration’s first secretary of Homeland Security does not help McCain’s efforts to distance himself from the unpopular president.

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McCain, who has not spoken to members of his traveling press corps for two weeks, ignored shouted questions from reporters about his pick as he boarded a plane Thursday from Phoenix to Dayton to start his tour of battleground states.

When he landed in Dayton he ignored them again other than to say, “Wilford Brimley,” presumably as a joke. Actor Brimley, 73, stars in TV commercials as a spokesman for a diabetes testing supply company.

After Dayton, McCain heads Saturday to the suburbs of Pittsburgh at the Consol Energy Park. On Sunday, he will campaign at a ball park in O’Fallon, Mo.

It’s unclear whether McCain is considering a running mate’s age as a factor. In a University of Akron poll of Ohio voters released this week, which showed Obama and McCain tied, 40% of the respondents said McCain’s age made them less likely to vote for him.

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Hoping to defuse the issue, McCain frequently joins late-night comedians in telling self-deprecating jokes about his advancing years.

The Democratic National Committee plans to stage events today in Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia to draw attention to McCain’s birthday.

Each will feature a cake carrying 72 candles and the inscription “Another year of more of the same,” a slogan that seeks to link McCain to President Bush.

McCain has long insisted that he will try to keep his selection process secret so that none of the candidates he passes over will be embarrassed.

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Earlier this year, he told reporters how he found out that his own vice presidential hopes were dashed.

In 1996, McCain waited in his Hawaii hotel room on the eve of Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole’s selection, afraid to stray too far from the phone in case Dole called.

He found out by watching television that Dole had picked Jack Kemp instead.

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bob.drogin@latimes.com

maeve.reston@latimes.com

Drogin reported from Sedona, Ariz., and Dayton, Ohio, and Reston reported from Bloomington, Minn.


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