It ranks as one of the biggest debacles in the history of the vice presidency. In 1972, Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern made what at first seemed an eminently sensible choice of Thomas Eagleton as his running mate. Eagleton was, after all, a popular senator from the swing state of Missouri with strong mainstream appeal who could theoretically balance out McGovern's liberalism. The selection turned into a disaster when Eagleton belatedly disclosed that he had undergone electric shock treatment for exhaustion years earlier. At first, McGovern said he was standing behind Eagleton "1,000 percent," but he ended up dumping his No. 2 in an embarrassing flip-flop. McGovern then tapped former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, but the furor deepened the voters' impression that McGovern was hapless and generally out of sync with the country, and the ticket suffered a colossal loss to Richard Nixon that fall.
Ever since, every major-party nominee has insisted on assigning squads of lawyers and researchers to investigate all aspects of a potential VP's life, from financial history to stands on the issues. That's happening again as Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain prepare to make their picks later this summer. Such vetting is all-important because vice presidential candidates have become "vehicles for reassurance," says Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker, chosen in large part to allay concerns about a presidential nominee's judgment or to offset vulnerabilities. "The vice presidential choice matters because both candidates have such clearly defined deficiencies," says GOP pollster Frank Luntz.
Both Obama and McCain want running mates who can step easily into the presidency. But beyond that, each candidate faces his own set of challenges.
Obama would be America's first African-American president, and his strategists say he wants to reassure white voters that he is a mainstream candidate who shares their values and will protect their interests, especially on the economy. Democratic strategists say Obama also needs a running mate who has credentials on national security, where he is considered vulnerable.
So far, Obama's selection process has gotten off to a rocky start. Jim Johnson, a veteran Democratic operative, recently resigned from Obama's vice presidential search committee because of, among other things, his connections to Countrywide Financial Corp., a controversial subprime mortgage lender. Johnson, who helped screen running mates for Walter Mondale in 1984 and John Kerry in 2004, said he did nothing wrong but didn't want to be a distraction. That left two members on the screening panel, former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder and activist Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John F. Kennedy. Neither Holder nor Kennedy has vetted previous vice presidential nominees before.
As to possible names and the process being used, Obama spokesman Bill Burton says, "We're not talking about it." But privately, some of Obama's advisers and Democrats who are being consulted provided guidance. There appear to be five categories for possible running mates:
Counteracting a vulnerability. Obama might pick a running mate who has an extensive background in national security. That would argue for people such as Sam Nunn of Georgia, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, or Joe Biden of Delaware, current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Nunn may have the edge because he could help carry the big state of Georgia, while Delaware is smaller and is expected to go Democratic anyway. But Nunn may be too conservative on some social issues, such as gay rights. "It's important for Obama to choose someone from the mainstream. The election will turn on 'Do I trust Barack Obama with my future and with my country's future?'" Luntz says.
Geographic balance. The traditional course would be picking someone who could carry a key state for the ticket. This would argue for candidates such as Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and Govs. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, Ted Strickland of Ohio, Tim Kaine of Virginia, and Phil Bredesen of Tennessee. Another possibility being discussed on the Democratic circuit is Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, a steady, popular leader who could give Obama a big lift in the Sunshine State. Nelson isn't an exciting campaigner, but he is probably a safe choice who would do no harm to Obama's prospects, which in the end could be a key consideration.
Demographic appeal. Some of Obama's supporters say the Democratic candidate may move beyond the goal of balancing the ticket. A senior adviser says Obama seems more inclined to pick a sidekick who "fits thematically with what he is trying to project"—change, conciliation, and new ideas. This could mean picking someone such as Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who would appeal to centrists, or Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius or Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who would appeal to women. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a centrist who is running for the Senate, would also qualify.