On the eve of Bob Dole's announcement of his vice presidential running mate in 1996, John McCain knew he was under serious consideration. But he was on an ill-timed trip to Hawaii -- without a cellphone.
As he tells it, he spent most of the time worried about missing a call to his hotel room, which never came. He learned Dole had passed him over for Jack Kemp when he flipped on the television news.
Now, with the Republican nomination virtually sewn up, McCain is facing a barrage of questions about who he might choose as a running mate. Perhaps because of his own public vetting years ago, the Arizona senator is being uncharacteristically tight-lipped.
He frequently waves off queries with a joke that the vice president has just two duties: casting tie votes in the Senate and inquiring daily about the health of the president. But that hasn't stopped feverish speculation about his frequent companions on the campaign trail and those who have made the invitation list for weekend retreats to the candidate's cabin outside Sedona.
Many believe that voters' concern about McCain's age -- he will be 72 on inauguration day -- means his choice for the No. 2 spot will carry a great deal of weight.
"By the time this election gets around, everyone is going to know he [would] be the oldest president ever sworn in," said Republican consultant Scott Reed. "It's a concern and it has to be addressed."
But there is little consensus within the party about what issue will define McCain's choice. Should his team look to a candidate who could shore up his economic credentials? Should he choose a partner who could allay suspicions among some conservatives that McCain is too liberal? Or does he have the latitude to choose a candidate who might broaden the appeal of the Republican Party?
McCain's most obvious task is finding someone the American people would view as a suitable stand-in as commander in chief.
Reed, who was Dole's campaign manager and helped orchestrate the surprise choice of Kemp in 1996, said McCain will look for "a good, strong conservative" with a record of governing who could complement the ticket "both from a generational standpoint [and] a geographical standpoint."
Many conservatives view the selection process as McCain's opportunity to earn their confidence, said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.
"A lot of conservatives fear he's going to change [the party] in some way and redraw it with them on the outside looking in," Keene said. "If you select the right person, you go a long way toward solving that problem.
"You can hit a grand slam home run, which might be a [Gov.] Mark Sanford of South Carolina, or a home run with Mitt Romney, or a double or a triple with a [North Carolina Sen.] Richard Burr, or a [Wisconsin Rep.] Paul Ryan . . . . Or you can screw it up."
Others, like Ken Duberstein, a chief of staff to President Reagan, say the field is open: "Does the right wing have veto power? The answer is no. Conservatives have a role to play, but it is not to dictate who the vice presidential candidate is."
Many believe McCain will consider Romney -- whose experience as a CEO could add economic heft to the ticket -- even though the two had a testy relationship when they were rivals for the nomination. McCain also is expected to consider onetime White House hopeful Mike Huckabee, a skilled campaigner who could draw evangelicals. Huckabee, however, was widely derided by economic conservatives over his record on taxes when he was governor of Arkansas.
Reed predicted Crist is likely to be "on McCain's short list of three or four." With approval ratings topping 70%, he "would about put a nail in it for the general election" by helping McCain win Florida, Reed said.
Crist, 51, styled himself as "the people's governor" after winning a tough-on-crime reputation in the Florida Legislature and serving as the state's attorney general and education commissioner. His last-minute endorsement is widely credited with helping McCain win the Florida primary.
"He's got the credentials in a lot of key policy areas," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. Crist, she said, is a fiscal conservative who is "very populist, people-oriented, kind of a sunny personality -- it's probably a nice complement to McCain."
But, MacManus noted, he is viewed with suspicion in some conservative circles in Florida because of his views on abortion and his support for civil unions and for the expansion of stem cell research. Crist ran campaign ads in 2006 casting himself as "pro-life"; several Florida newspapers have reported that he does not support overturning Roe vs. Wade. His spokeswoman did not return e-mails seeking clarification on this position.
Pawlenty, 47, is an early McCain supporter who won the Minnesota governorship in 2002, after saying that the Republican Party should represent "Sam's Club, not just the country club." His unassuming demeanor -- he likes to play in pickup hockey games as he travels around the state -- and commitment to fiscal restraint have led to strong approval ratings.
University of Minnesota political science professor Lawrence Jacobs said Pawlenty was "one of the most capable politicians for presenting himself as reasonable and likable." He won accolades in his party by taking a no-tax pledge when he ran in 2002 (though he did not repeat the pledge last cycle) and has vetoed a number of popular bills, including a recent transportation bill because of his opposition to tax hikes, Jacobs said.
"He's battling the Legislature and yet his approval ratings are pretty strong," Jacobs said.
Pawlenty will host the Republican convention in the Twin Cities later this year, but Jacobs and others have questioned whether the governor would be able to deliver Minnesota for McCain in November. Pawlenty won the 2006 election by just 1%.
There is much lobbying among conservatives for Sanford, 47, who served three House terms. He is known for his stunts -- sleeping in his congressional office to save taxpayer money (he sent his housing allowance back to the federal treasury), for example, and carrying two piglets into the statehouse to protest "pork barrel" spending in 2004.
But he has also been politically divisive.
Time magazine ranked him as one of the nation's worst governors in 2005, in part because of South Carolina's high unemployment rate. At the same time, Sanford's zeal for limited government led the libertarian Cato Institute to rank him as one of the nation's best governors.
Neal Thigpen, a political science professor at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., said Sanford had spent most of his time as governor "at war with the Republican-controlled state House and state Senate over spending."
"He hasn't had hardly any accomplishments in the years he's been in office because of this continual quarreling with the Legislature," Thigpen said. "This guy's record has been as a party divider in this state."
Besides, Thigpen said, McCain is unlikely to pick a running mate from a state that he could "carry away in a handbasket."
Another possible vice presidential choice popular in conservative circles is fiscal hawk Rob Portman, 52, a former Ohio congressman who served for 14 months as President Bush's director of the Office of Management and Budget.
"Portman probably brings a lot to the table -- congressional experience, executive experience, somebody who has been focusing on the economy [who is] from a swing state," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. But a drawback for Portman and a number of the candidates mentioned, she said, is that none are "known quantities."
On several occasions, McCain has been asked if he might consider Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison as his No. 2.
"She's attractive and well-spoken, but she's not got much executive experience," said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Hutchison, 64, is thought to be interested in running for governor in 2010: "I think that would be, in her heart of hearts, her first choice," Buchanan said.
One disadvantage McCain has in narrowing his list of possible running mates is not knowing who his Democratic opponent will be. Behind the scenes, the campaign will be doing a great deal of research and polling to weigh the drawbacks of various candidates.
But at this early stage, Reed said, it's "premature for McCain and team to really know what they need."
One of the most daunting tasks will be vetting the candidates to avoid any surprises.
"You have to look around every little corner and in every nook and cranny," Duberstein said.
It will be important for McCain, he said, to choose a search leader who's "been around the track several times and who knows where skeletons usually are -- what to ask and how to ask."
McCain strategist Charles Black said the campaign planned to "drag the net widely" and to keep the process secret to avoid "humiliating" candidates who weren't chosen.
"You just don't want to start talking names and just sort of shoot from the hip," Black said. "It's more important to take your time and do it right."
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Contenders in the GOP veepstakes
If John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, wins the race for the White House, he would be the oldest president ever sworn in. For voters, many analysts say, that makes his choice of a running mate especially important. Here are some of the possibilities being talked about:
Background: Former governor of Massachusetts.
Strength: Well-liked among conservatives, and his business experience could strengthen the ticket.
Problem: Had a testy relationship with McCain during the primaries, although Romney later endorsed him.
Background: Former governor of Arkansas.
Strength: He's seen as a strong campaigner who could draw evangelical voters.
Problem: Has been criticized for his tax record in Arkansas.
Background: Current governor of Florida.
Strength: A fiscal conservative, he could help McCain in Florida -- a state both parties say may be crucial to winning the general election.
Problem: In the past, he has taken positions on abortion, civil unions and stem cell research that trouble conservatives.
Background: Current governor of Minnesota.
Strength: An early McCain supporter, Pawlenty made a no-tax pledge that was popular with conservatives.
Problem: He won reelection very narrowly in his home state, which calls into question his ability to secure it for the Republican Party in November.
Background: Current governor of South Carolina.
Strength: Popular with conservatives because of his spending policies. He once brought piglets to the statehouse to protest pork-barrel spending -- a longtime issue for McCain.
Problem: He would not bring much geographical heft to the ticket, because McCain is already expected to carry South Carolina in the general election.