With the Republican nomination officially settled, the speculation about John McCain’s choice of a running mate has already begun. In most campaigns, this conjecture tends to focus on the likes of former campaign-trail foes, ticket balancers, non-political celebrities from the world of business, and even members of the opposing party.
But for this election, if Barack Obama is the opponent, there’s an obvious choice who seems to fit virtually all of the Arizona senator’s political needs: former two-term Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge.
In fact, Ridge was considered something of the front-runner to become George W. Bush’s running mate in 2000, when Dick Cheney — who was leading that search for potential veep — somehow ended up persuading his boss that he was the best choice for the job. McCain is unlikely to choose anyone as divisive as our current second-in-command. To win against Obama, McCain has several campaign goals:
* He has to win more than his share of the rust-belt swing states — such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and even Michigan — that are likely to decide the election.
* He has to do this by appealing to a large number of working-class, often Catholic swing voters in industrial states — the so-called Reagan Democrats.
* He has to convince enough voters that Obama is too inexperienced to handle the foreign-policy and terrorism threats facing the nation.
* And he has to hold the Republican Party together by discouraging a far-right third-party candidacy while maintaining his appeal to Independents.
Ridge — a 62-year-old Vietnam vet and President Bush’s first Secretary of Homeland Security — would help him accomplish all these objectives. First, he’d be an enormous asset in Pennsylvania, which John Kerry carried by only three percentage points in 2004. The same would be true to a lesser extent in Ohio, Michigan, and other crucial northern swing states.
Equally important, Ridge would reinforce Reagan Democrats’ attraction to McCain — a demographic that Obama has had difficulty courting. Take for example a recent New Jersey poll, which had Clinton leading McCain in the Garden State by nine points in a hypothetical match-up, while Obama trailed McCain by a few points.
Ridge also reinforces McCain’s national-security appeal. Because of McCain’s age, it’s imperative for him to select a running mate who has the qualifications to be president. But it’s even more important for him to choose a candidate whose national-security credentials exceed those of Obama — the better to make the argument that the Illinois senator is unprepared to be president — an argument that already seems to be working for Hillary Clinton.
Yes, Ridge is pro-choice. But because as governor he supported a number of restrictions on abortion that tempered his position, he’s likely to be acceptable to most conservatives, while allowing McCain to retain his appeal to Independents.
Certainly a number of other candidates are likely to be under consideration. But it’s hard to find anyone else who meshes as well with McCain as does Ridge, who supported the Arizona senator in the primaries. Most of the “young faces” often mentioned — Florida governor Bill Crist, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, or Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty — are so inexperienced themselves that, in comparison, they make Obama look like a senior statesman. Ditto for any outsider businessman McCain might pick, with the additional proviso that most Independents (think Joe Lieberman or Mike Bloomberg) are likely to be unacceptable to the right wing.
Plus, none of the former candidates in the race appeal to voters in an important swing state. Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell might be an intriguing choice, but they’re too connected with the Bush policies in Iraq for comfort — and, besides, it’s unlikely Powell would accept the nod, anyway.
Traditionally, presidential candidates have looked for running mates who diversify the ticket. But with his selection of Al Gore in 1992, Bill Clinton demonstrated that it might be a better strategy to pick a candidate who reinforces your own appeal — the better to run on a consistent theme. Against Obama, McCain’s candidacy will rise or fall with his ability to convince the electorate that the nation needs a steady, experienced, somewhat independent hand at the tiller. Ridge has the best stature and persona to help reinforce that argument.
And if the opponent is Clinton? In that unlikely case, McCain might want to look elsewhere — which is why he’ll wait to the last minute, after the Democratic convention, to make his choice.
Odds: 2-3| past week: same
Odds: 3-2| same
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Steven Stark's Presidential Tote Board blog: //www.thephoenix.com/toteboard