PENSACOLA, Fla. — Sen. John McCain disclosed Wednesday he is in the "embryonic stages" of selecting a vice presidential running mate and hopes to unveil his choice before the Republican National Convention to avoid the type of problems that plagued Dan Quayle's debut two decades ago.
"It's every name imaginable" he said of his list-in-the-making, about 20 in all.
He disclosed none of them and declined even to identify the individuals he has approached to supervise the vetting that will inevitably winnow the field.
In expressing his hope to announce his choice before the convention opens in September, McCain added, "I'm aware of enhanced importance of this issue because of my age." He is 71, and if he wins, would be the oldest president elected.
McCain's comments seemed to startle his top aides, who have scripted an elaborate weeklong series of events designed to introduce the Republican to a wider audience of voters and emphasize his military service.
The day's itinerary included stops at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where McCain graduated in 1958, and Pensacola, Fla., where he took his flight training.
There, he drew a loud ovation when he said, "We could and should call on universities to allow ROTC a presence on their campuses. That they are frequently denied that privilege is disgraceful."
The Arizona senator's remarks on a vice presidential search made clear his campaign has entered a new phase after a month spent asserting control over the party apparatus, emphasizing fundraising and trying to heal the wounds of a hard-fought struggle for the GOP nomination.
"We've done a pretty good job of unifying our party," he told reporters as his campaign bus pulled away from the football stadium at the Naval Academy, where he had issued a call for citizen involvement. "Now we've got to energize our party."
Aides interjected at one point that polling data shows McCain's level of support among Republicans is on par with the backing President Bush had at the same point in his winning campaigns in 2000 and 2004.
McCain indicated that little or no significant vetting of potential running mates has occurred. "I've just started this process of getting together a list of names and having them looked at," he said, adding it could take months to complete.
Early speculation on a running mate has focused on his former rivals for the nomination, particularly former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, as well as a handful of sitting Republican governors, Charlie Crist of Florida and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota among them.
In theory, Huckabee could help increase McCain's appeal among cultural conservatives who have been slow to warm to the Arizona senator. A governor might gain the GOP ticket support in a state that looms as critical in the fall general election.
McCain also might look toward the business sector. He holds Frederick Smith, the head of FedEx, in high regard and frequently praises him. Another name that's been mentioned is Rob Portman of Ohio, a former congressman who was one of Bush's budget directors.
"If I had a personal preference I'd like to do it before the convention to avoid some of the mistakes that I've seen made in the past as you get into a time crunch and maybe sometimes don't make the announcement right or maybe they have not examined every single candidate," he said.
Later he referred specifically to Quayle's selection, although he was careful to absolve the former vice president himself of any blame.
George H. W. Bush placed Quayle on his ticket in 1988, but delayed an announcement until arriving at his convention city in an attempt to maintain the suspense. Quayle quickly found himself struggling to answer questions about his earlier decision to join the National Guard rather than serve in the active duty military during the Vietnam War.
Quayle "had not been briefed and prepared for some of the questions," McCain said.
He spoke with reporters on a day that was a blend of speechmaking and retail politicking.
He stopped at Chick & Ruth's Delly in Annapolis, the Maryland capital where crab omelets are on the menu and local and state politicians have gathered down the street from the Statehouse for decades of coffee and shop talk. An American flag hung over the counter and five stools as the Arizonan joined other patrons in observing a daily ritual: reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
A wind-swept outdoor pavilion at the Navy football stadium was the backdrop for his speech before an invited audience.
"If you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you are disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them," he said in a call to citizen involvement aimed at a wider audience.
He said he hopes more Americans will enlist in the military or run for office.
"But there are many public causes where your service can make our country a stronger, better one than we inherited. Wherever there is a hungry child, a great cause exists. ... Wherever there is suffering, a great cause exists."