With less than eight weeks to go before the political conventions, the presidential campaigns are moving into high gear in their quest for running mates, and the parlor game of who will be the vice presidential candidates is well under way.
Ink is spilling, trees are falling and electrons by the millions are energized as pundits, journalists, bloggers and citizens debate the pros and cons of Pawlenty and Crist, Clinton or Hagel, the pluses and minuses of Palin and Mitt, Sebelius and Biden.
With the steady buzz of speculation as a backdrop, the campaigns are quietly gathering documents and information, working secretly to narrow the names and settle on one person for No. 2.
At this point, if history is truly destined for repetition, the smart money is still on "none of the above" for vice president. No clear front-runner or favorite has emerged on either side, and in the complex calculus of the vice presidential selection process, the end result usually defies all the equations -- sometimes with less than stellar results.
This election cycle, because of Sen. Barack Obama's perceived foreign policy inexperience and Sen. John McCain's age, the choice of running mates has taken on an even greater significance than ever before in recent history.
After all, looking back, eight of the 42 past presidents have been replaced in office by their vice presidents, which makes the historical odds that this year's winning wingman (or woman) taking the top job nearly one in five, or 20 percent.
It's a job that, according to the first to hold it, John Adams, is "the most insignificant office ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."
John Nance Garner, vice president to Franklin Roosevelt for two terms, supposedly and infamously equated the office to "a warm bucket of spit." And the humorist Will Rogers summed up the job as "All he has to do is get up every morning and say, 'How is the president?'"
Still, the vice presidency is openly coveted by literally dozens of politicians, from Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, D-Kan., who said she was eager to "drink from that pitcher" of spit, to Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., who serves as a surrogate for Obama on the Sunday talk shows and touts his Cabinet and executive experience and his ties to the Hispanic community as helpful attributes.
Both candidates, in fact, have been sending out some of their possible VP picks to appear on the Sunday talk shows -- almost like tryouts to see how well they deliver the message and defend the candidates' positions under pressure. That's why you can see all the short-listers running the gauntlet on Sunday morning.
Waiting in the wings without appearing to be openly campaigning for the job can be tricky, as some mentionables have noted when asked whether they had aspirations for best supporting roles.
"My biggest problem in answering these kinds of questions," Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., told the Indianapolis Star, "is that if I say yes, people say, 'Oh, well, he's being presumptuous and campaigning for it. If you say no, then people say you're being disingenuous and not telling the truth."
Unlike some contenders, Bayh didn't rule out the possibility. While saying he's happy to continue serving the people of Indiana, he added, "If someone who might be president asked me to help, of course I'd be willing to say yes."
Many of the possible VP candidates sounded similar themes: They aren't seeking the job, but wouldn't say no.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., for example, said on "Meet the Press" recently that he was "not interested" but then added a critical qualifier. "If the presidential nominee thought I could help him win, am I going to say to the first African-American candidate about to make history in the world that 'No, I will not help you out like you want me to?'" Biden said. "Of course, I'll say 'yes.'"
But some contenders have flatly ruled it out.
Monday, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., whose name has appeared on many short lists for Obama -- said he would not be a nominee and would remain in the Senate.
Fellow Virginian Mark Warner, the former governor, also has said he would not be in the running. And Democratic governors Ted Strickland of Ohio and Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania -- two key states in any electoral map -- have also taken themselves out of the VP stakes.
Obama has been direct in citing his criteria for a running mate.
"My goal is to have the best possible government," Obama told reporters in Boca Raton in May. "I am very practical-minded," Obama explained, noting "that does not exclude Republicans, either. The best person for the job is the person I would want."
And that has led to speculation that Obama could reach across the aisle and tap someone like maverick Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who was a co-chair of fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain's 2000 campaign, but has become a fierce critic of the Iraq War.
While Hagel would shore up Obama's perceived weakness in military affairs and demonstrate his stated plans for a bipartisan approach to government, Hagel's conservative stance on social issues, like abortion, could sink his chances.
Obama's perceived foreign and military affairs inexperience could be bolstered with a VP pick like Biden or Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a West Point graduate and former Army paratrooper.
Former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn is also in this category, though Nunn last week in Aspen said he was "honored" to be considered as a potential vice presidential running mate but called the odds "long" that he would be selected.
But selecting a pick solely because he brings foreign policy heft could backfire, by conceding the Republican point that Obama needs shoring up on foreign policy, a deficit that could easily be addressed with any of those men named as Cabinet choices for the Departments of State and Defense.
And, more importantly, both the 69-year-old Nunn (or Biden) could well violate the one VP selection criteria prominently mentioned by top Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, who was quoted last month by The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder as saying, "We certainly don't want to pick someone who will hurt."
That criterion might exclude Nunn, who helped formulate the controversial military "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy when he chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee and engendered the enmity of the gay and lesbian community.
Similarly, former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, who ran for president in 2004 and gave Obama campaign manager David Plouffe a key job on his staff more than 15 years ago, could give the Illinois senator a big boost in the Midwest, but he became a Washington lobbyist since leaving Congress.
And that, by Plouffe's own criteria of do no harm, opens Gephardt up for the kind of client scrutiny that sank one of Obama's own vetting chiefs, former Fannie Mae official Jim Johnson, who had unfortunately gotten a sweetheart loan rate from mortgage lender Countrywide Financial.
In the "first do no harm" world, Joe Biden's reputation as a political loose cannon could stir concern, as well as reports that he plagiarized a British politician's stump speech during his own failed presidential run in 1988.
Although many modern presidents have come from the gubernatorial ranks, very few governors have been vice presidential candidates.
The Democrats have tapped members of Congress for running mates in 13 of the past 14 races. The only exception was George McGovern's choice of Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver in 1972, but that was only after McGovern's first choice, Thomas Eagleton, withdrew. More about that later.
This year, with both candidates as sitting U.S. senators, governors may be looking more desirable as running mates than in past contests.
Obama could turn to Gov. Janet Napolitano, D-Ariz., or Sebelius, the daughter of a former -- and popular -- governor of Ohio, a Rust Belt state that has been in the camp of every winner of presidential contests in modern history.
But could Obama really choose a woman whose name isn't Hillary Rodham Clinton? On that point, some of the New York senator's closest advisers don't believe "Vice President Clinton" is in the cards.
Moreover, Plouffe -- and Obama himself -- have repeatedly made the point that geographical considerations aren't as important as they might seem. Plouffe pointed out that Al Gore didn't help Bill Clinton carry Tennessee in 1992, but Clinton won the presidency anyway.
In fact, most importantly, Obama and his aides have made clear that whoever joins the eventual ticket will have to share the candidate's vision of how to govern.
By that token, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards might seem to fit the bill. He's had experience as a VP candidate -- but remember, Edwards' ticket-topper, John Kerry, lost North Carolina and didn't even win Edward's home precinct in 2004.
Other possible picks who share Obama's vision include Warner, a wildly popular politician and successful businessman -- but one who has firmly said he wants nothing to do with the "bucket of spit" and plans to run for the Senate. His successor, Tim Kaine, could fill the bill, as well, and his fortunes could rise now that Webb has taken himself out of the running.
Another VP pick who is looking attractive to many Democrats is Indiana's Bayh, who also spent two terms as governor of that Midwest state with its 11 electoral votes up for grabs. Bayh has plenty of positive attributes: He has executive experience, was a prominent Hillary Clinton backer, who would help bring along her supporters, could pass crucial vetting tests, and is unlikely to upstage the candidate.
The "upstaging" issue is not insignificant.
Lloyd Bentsen, for example, did Michael Dukakis no favors when he seemed so "presidential" that people started asking, "Why isn't this guy running for president?"
But the great unanswered question, as always, is "chemistry," though most historians agree John F. Kennedy and his running mate, Lyndon Johnson, were like oil and water -- and still proved a famously winning combination.
It's chemistry that is most likely to be the key factor in McCain's choice of a running mate, according to those who know the Arizona senator best.
"John McCain's running mate will have to be someone John McCain likes and is comfortable with," said one longtime adviser.
In other words, McCain will want someone who doesn't just help him on the stump but someone he can actually envision working with over the next four years.
That suggests he may see the office a little differently than he once did.
Most of the GOP speculation to date has focused on McCain's one-time opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney is said to be attractive because he is good on the stump, was a successful businessman -- which helps bring credibility to economic policies -- and can help bring in big-time fundraising dollars.
But Romney also carries enormous negatives -- namely that McCain didn't like him during the primary and was furious about some of his comments, among them that his sons were serving the country by campaigning for their dad. (One of McCain's sons served the country as a Marine infantryman in Iraq.)
On the issues, Romney also could violate the "do no harm" maxim on which the Democrats are focused. With the McCain campaign hitting Obama hard for Obama reputedly changing his positions on key issues from Iraq to abortion rights, it would be awfully awkward for McCain to turn around and tap the guy who makes Obama seem firmly fixed in cement.
Romney has changed his positions on so many issues since he moved from moderate Massachusetts governor to the social conservative Republican presidential candidate, it's almost impossible to keep a running tally.
And that's all before we get to the bigger question: How would Romney add so much to the ticket when he could not even break through to Republican voters in the primaries -- with all his dollars spent?
One top prospect is Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn., who has famously made a point of trying to shift the party from so-called "country club" Republicans to working-class "Sam's Club" Republicans.
As the Minnesota newspapers have pointed out, he's lost the "mullet" hairstyle and gotten a conservative cut more appropriate for all his appearances on the Sunday shows, and he plays well with the conservative base. But could he be "President Pawlenty?" That's not at all clear.
Other prospects also bring their own crop of negatives.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., a 38-year-old rising conservative star, would make McCain look too old by comparison.
The perpetually tanned Gov. Charlie Crist, R-Fla., newly engaged after 30 years as a bachelor, is slipping in popularity in his own state after shifting his policy to join McCain in support of off-shore oil drilling.
Former White House Budget Director Rob Portman, another name tossed about, has that unfortunate title, in this economy, of former White House budget director. And he's said he doesn't want the job, anyway.
People close to McCain say he would like to tap former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, the former director of Homeland Security, who is solid on the issue McCain cares most about: the threat of Islamofacism. Ridge would help him in Pennsylvania.
But Ridge is pro abortion rights, and that would infuriate the conservative base that is already disenchanted with McCain. What's more, the first Homeland Security secretary's ties to President Bush would only lend voices to the chants of "McSame."
Others in the mix are Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is advising McCain. But he is a more likely choice for attorney general. And those close to McCain say the person he'd most like to pick is his close friend Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat turned independent who was Al Gore's running mate in 2000. But if you thought Ridge would bring huge problems with the base, just square them for Lieberman.
Then there are the women, who some analysts believe would be a smart pick for McCain -- he can try to make some history, too.
Of those, Gov. Sarah Palin, R-Alaska, an anti-abortion mother of five, is getting some ink, as is former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and eBay founder Meg Whitman. The latter two, however, have huge bank accounts that could rub voters the wrong way in a tough economy -- and no real political experience. And then there's another Whitman: former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey.
Both campaigns are employing a practiced and refined method of winnowing down the universe of potential running mates into a short list of candidates. The process starts with a committee that begins the so-called "vetting" process, searching for flaws or closeted skeletons that could prove embarrassing or destructive to a campaign.
In 1972, for example, Democratic candidate George McGovern chose Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton for the No. 2 spot, only to drop him just as the campaign was under way after reporters revealed the senator had been hospitalized and treated for depression with electroshock therapy.
To avoid a similarly disastrous misstep, then-Gov. George Bush turned to his father's defense secretary and the Ford White House chief of staff to head his selection committee: Dick Cheney. Of course, Cheney ended up finding no better candidate for the job than himself.
This time both Obama and McCain have tapped lawyers to head their VP search teams. Obama's vetters are headed by former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder and, adding the glitter of Camelot, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, who endorsed Obama early in the primary season.
John McCain's VP search team is headed by a veteran Washington attorney, A.B. Culvahouse, chairman of the powerhouse law firm of O'Melveny & Myers and himself a former White House counsel to President Reagan.
Vetting the VPs
Here's how it works:
First of all, teams of lawyers conduct a basic search of public source material -- newspaper clippings, legal filings -- on a broad array of potential candidates, most of whom have no idea they are even being considered. A decade ago, that was accomplished with the aid of Nexis-Lexis and other searchable databases. Nowadays, it starts with the simple and cheaply ubiquitous "Google" search.
Once a serious "long list" is developed, the most serious potentials are given a detailed questionnaire -- like the most intense job application ever devised -- that they must fill out themselves.
A history of Washington scandals rooted in everything from illegal nannies to drug use informs the questionnaire with every possible "gotcha" the vetters can imagine. It delves deeply any potentially embarrassing personal histories: marital issues, tax payments, mortgages, clients, lobbyists and medical records. A candidate who may not have recently had a thorough physical would be required to get one and provide the results.
The questionnaires are so invasive that some candidates have flatly refused to take that step. Once those forms are complete, a final short list of potential VPs is selected and they are then required to provide even more detail -- including tax returns and financial records. By now, insiders in both camps say, those short lists have already been compiled and the finalists are under consideration.
In the case of the Democrats, a staff, complete with a chief aide to the soon-to-be-named vice presidential candidate is now in place. Hillary Clinton's campaign veteran Patti Solis Doyle has been named chief of staff to Obama's No. 2 -- whoever that may be.
Some Obamologists believe Doyle's hiring signals he has already made his choice, but in 2004, the Kerry campaign hired a VP chief of staff a week before announcing its VP selection -- and refused to tell the new chief of staff that the pick was John Edwards.
As for McCain, a steady stream of hopefuls has hit the trail with him, and frequently mentioned possibles like Jindal, Romney and Crist were all guests at a holiday barbecue in May, fueling speculation that they were short-listers. That led to counterspeculation that McCain merely was being hospitable to extend an olive branch or shore up support.
So if you're willing to wager some cash on who will be the VP candidates, the smart money is still on "none of the above."
The Prediction Market
And with the information largely speculation at this point, there's actually a brisk trade under way: People who have invested in a "market" that predicts the outcome of the VP picks.
This prediction market, according to economist Justin Wolfers, typically does a more accurate job of forecasting who will be vice president (and president) than polls, pundits or educated guesswork.
"The relevant question is not whether prediction markets are always right," said Wolfers, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, "but whether they are 'more right' -- or more often right -- than alternative approaches."
Even last February -- early in the primary season -- the prediction market InTrade (intrade.com) gave Obama a two in three chance -- or 66 percent -- of winning the Democratic Party nomination. The latest InTrade market offers investors Obama a "buy" price at 65.1 and McCain's stock is trading at 31.6. That means the traders are putting their money -- and they actually are buying and selling shares -- on Obama to win in November.
In the market on vice presidential picks, the latest trading says a lot about the various candidates' stock, since it takes into account not just polling information, but news stories and gossip, too. Leading the Republican pack is Mitt Romney, who is trading at 23, followed by Tim Pawlenty at 15 and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 12.
Among the Democrats, Hillary Clinton is still a contender, trading at 18, even though among political pundits, the likelihood that she will be Obama's pick is considered slim.
The most money placed on the Democratic race, $30 out of $100, is on "the field" -- any other candidate than those being traded, which includes just about every name ever mentioned as a possible Obama running mate -- Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, Sam Nunn, Ted Strickland, Sam Nunn,Tom Daschle, Chris Dodd, Bob Kerrey, Tom Vilsack, John Edwards, Al Gore, Wes Clark, Mark Warner or Bill Richardson.
Among the Republicans, again the "smart" money -- $40 out of every $100 -- is betting that the eventual vice presidential nominee will be from the field, which excludes all the usual -- and some unusual -- suspects: Romney, Pawlenty, Huckabee, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Condoleeza Rice, Rudy Giuliani, Lindsay Graham, Fred Thompson, Jeb Bush, former Maryland gubernatorial candidate Michael Steele, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, California Representative Duncan Hunter and even Texas Representative Ron Paul.
"These markets will move very, very sharply," Wolfers said.
The bid price for stock in Webb, Wolfers pointed out, plummeted from 18 to 3 within minutes of his announcement that he would not be a vice presidential candidate Monday afternoon.
"If you look at the 'field contact' among the Republicans, there's a 40 percent chance that someone other than the field will win. That's where all the volume in trading is."
So, go ahead and guess who will be the VP candidates at the end of the summer. The only two Americans who probably have a better idea of the right names are John McCain and Barack Obama, and at this point, it's doubtful they know for certain either.