McCain Vice President Choice is His Toughest Decision Yet

McCain needs to excite the dispirited party with his choice for the bottom of the ticket.

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It has been a running—make that a running mate—theme since 71-year-old John McCain wrapped up the GOP presidential nomination: His pick for vice president must be comparatively young, a "new generation" Republican who could balance the boss's decidedly mature mien and long tenure in Washington.

If elected, McCain would rewrite the record set in 1980 by Ronald Reagan, who at age 69 became the oldest first-term president in the nation's history. But age, it turns out, may be the least of McCain's veep considerations. After all, when a septuagenarian is doing the picking, even 61-year-old former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, said to be on McCain's short list, would provide contrast enough.

While conventional wisdom suggests that a running mate should help fill the nominee's perceived gaps—expertise in a policy area, clout in an important state—McCain faces burdens well beyond age and whether he could carry swing-state Florida on his own. (His advisers say he could.) The Republican Party is demoralized and has failed to coalesce around his candidacy. The worsening economy has threatened to eclipse his signature issue, national security. And there has been a pervasive perception in GOP circles that McCain's campaign is foundering. "He's an extraordinary candidate," says one prominent GOP strategist, "but the campaign is not as good as the candidate."

What does all that have to do with his running mate pick? It would take the equivalent of a mythic six-headed creature to help McCain shore up the party's evangelical and fiscal conservative base, signal distance from an unpopular president, and attract independents and moderate Democrats whom both he and Barack Obama covet. All of which have given amateur odds-makers plenty of fodder: Will McCain opt for a safe choice, a tried-and-true conservative who has held elective office and could reassure at least part of the GOP base? Or will he chuck convention and inject needed excitement into his campaign with someone whose name may have never appeared on any of the summer speculation lists?

Whatever he does, says Ed Rogers, a GOP lobbyist who worked in the White House for former President George H. W. Bush, McCain can't be seen as part of the business-as-usual party establishment. "He has to protect his image as an independent, quasi-GOP heretic," Rogers says. "That is more important than making any sliver of the base happy."

Leaders within those slivers of the Republican base, however, may not agree. Fiscal conservatives, angry with the Bush administration over budget deficits and skeptical of McCain's economic savvy, want someone who can help bring order to the nation's financial house. And traditional evangelical leaders like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council say they're looking for a nominee who, unlike McCain, would be comfortable speaking the language of Christian conservatives. "There's no intensity at all within the ranks of social or fiscal conservatives," says Perkins. "No one mentioned as being on Senator McCain's top list has me doing cartwheels."

Though the McCain camp has closely guarded its deliberations, there is some consensus among GOP activists and strategists close to the campaign about who is being considered. However, one prominent Republican says that, knowing McCain, "he'll just wake up one morning and decide who he wants." That said, his vetters have been weighing partners who would complement McCain's strengths and help him where he needs it.

Counteracting a vulnerability. McCain's age can't be dismissed. Up to a third of those surveyed in a recent Pew Research Center poll said that the fact that the nominee will turn 72 before the party's September convention could influence their vote. But, increasingly, the candidate's lack of fluency on the economy has been seen by the Obama camp as McCain's weak flank. And that's why Romney, a Wall Street favorite who made millions as a venture capitalist before seeking the GOP nomination this year, has been consistently mentioned as a running mate. The palpable antipathy between the two during the campaign appears to have eased, and Romney has been an enthusiastic campaigner and rainmaker for McCain. "He's been exceptionally helpful," says one McCain adviser. Romney's a Washington outsider who also had appeal in the battleground West, though he did not play well in the South, where his Mormon faith was an issue with voters.