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Veepstakes: What Happened To Sebelius?

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Speculation abounds these days as to whom, exactly, Barack Obama will choose as a vice presidential candidate. The secrecy that surrounds the process makes predictions the political equivalent of blind darts. But one thing can be tangibly gleaned: which potential candidate is receiving the preponderance of coverage.

A curious aspect of the recent VP go-around has been the relatively scant attention paid towards Kathleen Sebelius. The Kansas Governor once was seen as a frontrunner for the spot. She was the gubernatorial compliment to Obama's new generation, Washington outsider message. But while her close relationship to the presumptive Democratic nominee has always made Sebelius -- at the very least -- a viable option, confidence in that choice has waned. Compared to other candidates, Sebelius has not been subjected to intense speculation. (On Tuesday, for example, Bloomberg News delved deep into the lobbying ties of Evan Bayh's wife.)

What can tea leaf readers make of this? On the most direct level, the silence suggests nothing more than that Sebelius is highly disciplined and not prone to unnecessary chatter or drama.

"I would definitely say that she, to her credit, is somebody who doesn't leak, and I think that there is probably a good shared mindset with the Obama team on that front," said a Democratic official in Kansas. "I'm almost sure she is still in the running and I think it is to the credit of the Chicago team, because their mores aren't guided by beltway chatter."

Indeed, the source adds, Sebelius' low national profile could be attributed to a press corps that is more familiar and comfortable reporting on Washington figures like Joe Biden or Bayh. Another Kansas official told the Huffington Post that a major national political reporter was still trying to figure out whether Sebelius was considered a progressive or a centrist within her own state. (For the record, she is regarded primarily as a principled progressive who has built consensus rather than tacked towards the middle.)

And yet, conventional wisdom suggests the opposite. The absence of serious buzz around Sebelius seems, observers say, reflective of a vice presidential candidacy that never really left the ground and is now viewed as a poor choice in such a tight race.

"Her strength is mostly symbolic, as a blue governor in a red state," said Bird Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who has advised Sebelius in the past. "A lot of it is her personal relationship with Obama. And I think if Obama was ahead by ten points right now he might choose Kathleen. But in a two-point race I don't see how you give up a major political card [like a more dynamic pick] to play."

If that's the case, it represents a somewhat paradoxical political development. Several months into the general election, the major battles being waged are over economic policy and the woman vote. Sebelius, a widely respected administrator and one of the nation's most prominent female figures would, on the surface, seem well equipped to charge into that breach.

But outside factors have been at play. Several sources, stating the obvious, argued bluntly that the press and possibly Obama have ruled out Sebelius strictly because of the backlash her nomination would engender among Hillary Clinton supporters. "There is one reason," said a source close to Clinton. "And that's: 'no woman but Hillary.'" Others have argued that Obama's primary need right now is someone with foreign policy gravitas or geographic symbolism.

"A lot of it is pretty sophisticated, good reporters look at this and say, 'I know she has been named, but honestly, what does she bring to the ticket?' said Loomis. "And once they look they don't find that much politically in terms of her helping Obama. She doesn't have the foreign policy or military expertise and she doesn't come from a key state."

In the end, all this could be a moot point. Obama is expected to make his selection in a matter of days and few beyond the most inner circle of his staff know who he'll choose. But should Sebelius get the nod it would, in a way, be a remarkable political feat -- a vice presidential selection process that was navigated with a relatively low amount of speculation and even less expectation.

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