Increasingly acting like the Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama is beginning to vet potential running mates, laying plans to take control of the party's campaign apparatus and trying to overcome vulnerabilities exposed in the prolonged primary season.
Obama has not asserted the nomination is his, for fear of offending supporters of his rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who lags Obama among delegates to the party's nominating convention but shows no signs of conceding the race. Still, his recent campaign stops and administrative moves show that his central focus is the November election.
The campaign has tapped Jim Johnson, an Obama fundraiser, to oversee the screening of potential vice presidential candidates, according to campaign aides.
Johnson, vice chairman of the merchant bank and private equity fund Perseus, worked as a top aide to then-Vice President Walter F. Mondale. He helped Mondale vet potential running mates in Mondale's unsuccessful 1984 presidential campaign and played a similar role for Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee.
"He's been through this VP thing many, many times," Mondale said.
Johnson "worked for me in a key position in the White House," Mondale noted. "He knows what it is, because he lived there."
As the nominee, Obama would gain effective command of the party's campaign machinery, centered at the Democratic National Committee in Washington. Campaign staff indicated that Obama's liaison to the DNC would be a trusted campaign aide, Paul Tewes, who ran Obama's campaign in Iowa, where the candidate scored his first and arguably most important victory.
Last week, DNC officials traveled to the Illinois senator's headquarters in Chicago to talk through how the campaign and the DNC might join forces. The officials discussed strategy, fundraising, opposition research and communications, according to people familiar with the meeting.
The party has held similar meetings with Clinton's campaign, in case the New York senator wins the nomination -- a prospect that has become increasingly unlikely in recent weeks.
With only three more primary contests remaining -- in Puerto Rico on June 1 and South Dakota and Montana on June 3 -- Obama is also moving to solidify his position in November's likely battleground states.
He is in the midst of a three-day swing through Florida, where he has sought to allay fears among some Jewish voters that he is not sufficiently supportive of Israel. On Memorial Day, Obama and his wife, Michelle, are scheduled to visit New Mexico, also considered a swing state.
"It makes sense to bring the party together, to merge all the Democratic Party infrastructure, to start the healing, and to visit states like Florida that he hasn't had a chance to visit much," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, an Obama supporter.
"It makes sense to do this, because he's going to be the nominee," Richardson added.
Obama's preparations on this score are a delicate matter. He does not want to appear to be pushing Clinton from the stage, so he can remain well-positioned to win the votes of her supporters in the general election.
Clinton insists she has a viable path to the Democratic nomination. In a conference call with reporters Thursday, her top strategists argued that if party leaders restored the disputed delegates from Florida and Michigan, she could wrest the nomination from Obama.
Obama aides are keeping the hunt for a running mate a closely guarded effort. Obama has not shared his thinking on how much weight he will give to calls from some Democrats to make Clinton the vice presidential nominee.
Other potential choices include Richardson and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Both ran against Obama for the nomination but later dropped out and endorsed him.
Others who may be on Obama's list include Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and three senators: Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who also ran for president this year; Claire McCaskill of Missouri; and Jim Webb of Virginia.
During a visit to a Boca Raton synagogue Thursday, Obama got an indirect question about whether he might name Clinton as his vice president.
"Will you be willing to consider everyone a possible running mate, even if his or her spouse is a pain in the butt?" one person asked.
After he and the crowd stopped laughing, Obama cautioned that it was too soon to talk about possible vice presidential nominees. "Two weeks from now, we will know who the Democratic nominee is going to be, so I don't want to jump the gun," he said.
But he noted that one of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln, stocked his administration with rivals, and he said he would be willing to do the same.
While in Florida, Obama has made an effort to address weaknesses that have emerged during his campaign fight with Clinton. One point of concern is Jewish voters.
On Thursday, he spoke to Jewish voters and sought to address any misgivings. At the Boca Raton synagogue, B'nai Torah, he was introduced by three Jewish elected officials from Florida, who assured the crowd that Obama was a friend to Israel.
Obama's remarks focused on his admiration of the Jewish community and his support for the Jewish state.
Acknowledging a cultural distrust, he told his audience that the name Barack comes from a Semitic root and that he shares the name with a former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak.
Even as Obama regroups for a faceoff against presumed Republican nominee John McCain, Clinton is not giving up. Her campaign is pinning its hopes on a meeting of the party's rules and bylaws panel on May 31, which could result in the reinstatement of disputed Florida and Michigan delegates.
Democratic officials stripped the two states of their delegates because the states violated party rules, holding their primaries too early. Neither Clinton nor Obama campaigned in either state, and Obama was not on the Michigan ballot.
Clinton won the elections in both states, and hopes she can cut into Obama's lead if the rules committee awards her those delegates.
Were that to happen, her campaign believes she could then make a convincing case to superdelegates that she is the stronger general-election candidate, and that they should vote for her at the party's nominating convention in August.
"If you look at the map, Sen. Clinton has the winning map against John McCain," Howard Wolfson, a Clinton spokesman, said in the conference call. "We don't lose a single state that John Kerry won, and we would add Arkansas, West Virginia, Florida and Ohio."
Times staff writers Nicholas Riccardi and Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.
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Those familiar with Barack Obama's thinking on whom he might select as a running mate are not speaking publicly -- or privately, for that matter. Hillary Rodham Clinton, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, has not been ruled in or out.
Still, there is no shortage of names floating around political circles. Among them are two erstwhile presidential contenders who since have endorsed Obama: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee.
Others mentioned include Govs. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Ted Strickland of Ohio; and Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware (who also ran for president), Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jim Webb of Virginia. Former Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sam Nunn of Georgia have also been mentioned, as has retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark.
-- Los Angeles Times