John McCain’s veepstakes

July 21, 2008
John McCain must envy Barack Obama. The Illinois senator needs a running mate who does just three things: Appeal to centrists and moderates, bolster his foreign-policy weak spot and not turn off the base. Plenty of potential VPs can do that.

McCain, meanwhile, needs a running mate who can do roughly a dozen things: reassure skittish evangelicals, deliver a key state, shore up his weakness on economics, appeal to swing voters, attract women, be an acceptable conservative standard-bearer, add energy to the ticket, and on and on. ... Yet no potential veep can do all of these things, and only a few can do most of them. The advantage for McCain is that, as the stodgy underdog, he has to think big, while the perhaps too-exciting Obama seems sure to play it safe. To follow: a guide to the most-discussed candidates for the job. Discuss the veepstakes breakdown here.

 Appeals toAlienatesRisk factorBottom line

Former Gov. Mitt Romney
Hugh Hewitt, the right-wing wonkosphere, Mormons, CEOs, McCain-wary Bush donors, millionaires with important hair

John McCain

Low. Though he could exponentially increase the “Hey, look at the dull white guys!” factor

Safest of the bold picks

Former Rep. Rob Portman
R-Ohio. Director of the Office of Management and Budget, 2005-07

Indispensable Ohio voters, free traders, conservative establishment, C-SPAN junkies


Low in terms of skeletons or gaffes; high on the may-bore-voters-into-a-stupor scale

The responsible choice if McCain was ahead by 20 points, but probably really can’t deliver Ohio

Sen. Joe Lieberman

Independents, hawks, swing Dems, Jews, Israel supporters, neocons

Left-wing bloggers, Republicans who’d like at least one GOP loyalist on the ticket

High: For every swing voter he lures, two conservatives might be turned off

Better to save him for secretary of Defense or State

Gov. Charlie Crist

Valuable Florida voters, non-ideological Republicans, Greek Americans

People who still don’t understand why he’s on the shortlist, fans of natural tanning

Medium-High: Too many potential surprises from the just-got-engaged governor

McCain’s been doing OK in Florida, so why bother?

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee

Pro-government evangelicals, pro-lifers, Southerners, working-class populists

Economic conservatives, the conservative establishment, and me personally

High: Would suck up McCain’s oxygen while promising to raise taxes on people who don’t laugh at his jokes

GOP doesn’t need a Lonesome Rhodes character as its heir-apparent

Gov. Haley Barbour

Conservative establishment, K Street, Southerners, NASCAR dads

Moderates, centrists, Southernphobes

Medium: Former K Street warlord would undermine McCain’s reformer appeal

A one-legged man at a butt-kicking contest stands a better chance

Gov. Bobby Jindal

Conservative wonks, Indian Americans, media, nearly everyone else


Low: Great reform credentials and identity politics oomph. Little foreign policy experience

Great for the GOP. Still, could look like McCain’s intern

Gov. Sarah Palin

Women, pro-lifers, visually unimpaired heterosexual men, pro-Hillary swing voters

Alaska’s kleptocracy

Medium: Provincial political experience and no foreign policy; putting her young kids through the wringer may not fly

Savvy former beauty queen from the most outsider state has a great story and solid pro-life credentials; could be a home run

Carly Fiorina
McCain advisor, former Hewlett-Packard chief

Women, media, Chamber of Commerce crowd

Conservatives who think a record of conservatism is really important

High: Smooth talker, too smooth; never say “Viagra” in connection with oldest candidate ever

If McCain goes for a woman, she seems to be his favorite

Sen. Tom Coburn

Barack Obama, social conservatives, GOP rank and file

Independents, moderates, swing Democrats

Medium: Delivers no states; makes Bob Portman seem sexy

Would rev up the base and bolster McCain’s pork-buster rep

Sen. John Thune
R-South Dakota

Republicans who loved seeing him take out Majority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004

Anyone who didn’t

Low: Attractive, relatively safe

Earmarking junior senator doesn’t help the McCain narrative

Rep. Marsha Blackburn

Everyone who says, “If only Tom Coburn was female”

Liberals who think conservative women are traitors

Low: She’d please the base while putting the gender card in play

The safest of the female picks

Former Gov. Jeb Bush
R- Florida

Bush loyalists, Floridians, Latinos, GOP establishment, wonks, many conservatives

Those inclined to self-immolate at the prospect of hearing the name “Bush” for 4 to 16 more years

Stratospheric: Best governor of either party in 20 years, with reform cred and Latino crossover appeal, but ...

... Would-be self-immolators outnumber Bush loyalists by 5 to 1

Gov. Tim Pawlenty

John McCain, moderates, reformers, wonks, Minnesota-based conservative bloggers

The many who think conservative reform is a Trojan horse for “me-too Republicanism”

Medium: Popular, hockey-playing coiner of the buzzphrase “Sam’s Club Republican” couldn’t deliver own state

Most plausible of the reformer veeps

Tom Ridge
Former Pennsylvania governor and secretary of Homeland Security

Tom Ridge, Pennsylvanians, pro-choice Republicans, pro-nuclear-freeze Republicans, fans of color-coded terror

Conservatives who have looked at his post-Vietnam War record

High: The only argument anyone makes is that he could carry Pennsylvania

If he can’t deliver the Keystone State, “Sexier than Arlen Specter” won’t wow the base

Jonah Goldberg, a weekly Op-Ed columnist and editor at large for National Review Online, is the author of “Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.”