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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Geographic balance. Ohio is once again poised to be the crucial swing state come fall, and that's just one reason former Rep. Rob Portman, 52, has been a short-lister. The Cincinnati lawyer is considered a party up-and-comer, says GOP activist Brad Blakeman, with "an economic portfolio, bipartisan respect on Capitol Hill, youth, and a great family." The former Office of Management and Budget director under the current President Bush, Portman would bring with him deep Ohio connections. However, his Bush ties hurt him at a time when McCain has been practicing a delicate, and not always successful, dance of distancing himself from the administration. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, 47, has been a long-standing member of the under-consideration club. A personable Washington outsider, he would bring a fresh conservative face to the ticket and could help put his state in play. But strategists say that he'sa low-risk, low-excitement pick who doesn't guarantee a home-state win.

Demographic appeal. With western states expected to be contested, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, 47, a Christian conservative from the Plains, could be an asset with voters on the left side of the Mississippi River. Though not well known outside of GOP circles, the telegenic Thune became a party hero four years ago when he defeated incumbent Sen. Tom Daschle, now an Obama adviser. He endorsed McCain early and is extremely popular among party activists. "A phenomenal guy," says one McCain adviser.

Also ran. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won eight contests, including the crucial season opener in Iowa, in his race this year for the nomination. He rallied the party's Christian conservative base and took votes from Romney, which helped catapult McCain to the nomination. But is the ordained Baptist minister owed a spot on the ticket? Some party insiders say they don't believe he passes the "could he be president test" and are pushing to have him lead the Republican National Committee through the election. "He has a great appeal to our base," Blakeman says, and as RNC chief he would play a prominent convention role and get lots of television time, which the affable Huckabee clearly relishes.

Wild card. As head of eBay, Meg Whitman steered the company from 30 employees to 15,000—and more than $7.6 billion in revenue. One of McCain's national cochairs and among the nation's richest individuals, Whitman and former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina are among a crop of corporateexecutives the campaign has been hinting it might consider. Though Whitman, 51, now retired, would add excitement, a corporate pick with no elective experience could be risky. "When you have someone straight from the private sector, they don't know squat about politics, and the American people don't know who they are," says GOP strategist John Feehery. "It makes no sense to me."

There have been other potential candidates, and some, like Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and first-term Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, have gotten coveted invitations to McCain's Sedona, Ariz., ranch. Jindal, at 37, has been described as the party's rising star but is, by most accounts, considered too young and inexperienced to get the nod. "He's the future of the party," says one top McCain supporter, "but we're not to the future yet." Others mentioned have been North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. And there are dream candidates. For Rogers, it's Sen. Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat who has become one of McCain's closest advisers. For Feehery, it's former Secretary of State Colin Powell. No matter whom McCain settles on, he might want to take a cue from Reagan: Wait until the GOP convention, after the Democrats have their historic party, to announce the pick. It would at least guarantee some excitement at a gathering that will need all it can muster.