Friday, August 8, 2008

MCCAIN'S SECRET WEAPON?

Who will John McCain select as his vice presidential nominee? The conventional wisdom is that, in the end, the VP nominee doesn't really make much of a difference. And that's probably true. I mean who voted for Reagan because of Bush, or Bush because of Quayle, or Clinton because of Gore, or Bush II because of Cheney? But in a close race, on the margins, a carefully-selected veep choice could matter.

I'm not worried about the GOP darling du jour, Tim Pawlenty, who is subject to a fawning profile in this morning's NYT. Yes, he's photogenic, he's reputed to be a policy wonk, he's a member of a megachurch, he has an ethnic name, and he's the same age as Barack Obama. But he's not likely to put Minnesota in play for McCain (after all Pawlenty didn't even pick up a majority of voters in his run for the governorship.) Bobby Jindal is a favorite of many Republican insiders, but Louisiana will go Republican regardless and he's a little too novel, probably not quite white enough for the GOP hard core. McCain is probably not going to go for the novelty ticket. Most of the others on the GOP list aren't particularly compelling or have serious liabilities, like the chameleon Mitt Romney, the rabid Lindsay Graham, or the unctuous Charlie Crist. None of them will bring a lot of pizazz to the McCain ticket. Each of them will confirm the view of voters that McCain is really McSame, someone beholden to the GOP orthodoxy.

My guess is that if the people McCain is consulting on the vice presidency have more of a brain that the nitwits who are designing his ad campaign, they will make their vice presidential choice with a detailed electoral map in hand. They need to neutralize the Democrats in one or two key swing states. Two of the biggest prizes are Virginia and Florida. Obama has his eye on Virginia, which has gone cold for the Democrats since Lyndon Johnson, but which has leaned blue in recent years. Two of his frequently named possible veeps, Jim Webb and Tom Kaine, both problematic in my view, are Virginians. And, of course, Obama has his eyes on Florida, home to a volatile mix of Rustbelt-born Snowbirds, I-4 corridor evangelicals, generationally-divided Cuban-Americans, African Americans, small town white Southerners, and coastal cosmopolitans. But there's no compelling Floridian to serve as Obama's number two.

Putting myself in the shoes of McCain's advisors, there is one name which jumps out. And he scares me. The one potential GOP veep who has the potential to bag both Virginia and Florida for McCain is Eric Cantor, a 45-year old GOP representative and chief deputy house whip. Why Cantor? He's popular, he's a fresh face on the national scene, he's photogenic, he has impeccable wing-nut credentials, he represents a Richmond, Virginia district, and he will siphon off enough Florida voters from the Dems, especially older Jews who are uneasy with Barack Obama. A Jewish running mate for McCain, even if he is a rightist like Cantor, would play into McCain's carefully-crafted image as an out-of-the-box "moderate" who is willing to take a "risk."

If he knows what's good for him, Obama will go for a Rustbelter as his veep choice, maybe Ohio's popular Sherrod Brown (he's at the top of my list--listen up Barack). But here's another new, intriguing possibility: Michigan senator Carl Levin. I have a great deal of respect for Levin. (I first met him in high school and, if he's the nominee, I promise to post the photograph of Levin awarding me a scholarship. The first time I voted, I pulled the lever for Levin). He's one of the more liberal members of the Senate, he is smart and conscientious, he has been re-elected by huge margins in a key Rustbelt state, he is attuned to labor and economic issues, and he has strong foreign policy credentials, especially as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. There's something charming about the way that he resists the blow-dried look of most veep wannabees: he has a cheap haircut and rumpled suits. He's not in the least bit flashy. An Obama-Levin ticket would leave McCain-Cantor in the dust and will keep Florida in play. Carl Levin is a dark horse to be sure, but I'll join TNR's Jonathan Cohn and elevate him to the top ranks of my veep list.

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