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McCain's Veepstakes Dilemma

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GOP nominee must decide which void his running mate should fill.

The "veepstakes" talk has begun to heat up in earnest now that both parties' presumptive nominees for president have been picked. While pundits focus their short attention spans on the current discussion of "Will Obama pick Hillary Clinton?" (the easy/smart/obvious answer is an emphatic "no"), the McCain veep stakes are more intriguing.

First, a quick lesson we'll call Veepstakes 101.

The question in deciding whom to pick for your vice-presidential running mate basically boils down to two things. 1) Geographic benefit. This means selecting a candidate who will more than likely bring an important state or region into your "win" column than if you did not pick this person as your running mate. 2) Filling a void (real or perceived). The prime example of this was when George Herbert Walker Bush (that's the old man to you non-politicos) picked Dan Quayle to be his running mate. Bush must have selected Quayle on the advice of old pal Dick Cheney because his campaign wasn't doing well in the all-important "knucklehead" demographic. Some say it didn't matter. I say, "But what if all the knuckleheads had not voted because Quayle was on the ticket?"

Some pundits will argue that none of this matters at all; that voters don't vote based on who the Veep nominee is. I say, "Okay, maybe they were stupid when they voted Bush/Quayle because Quayle was on the ticket, but four years later they were even dumber when they elected Bill Clinton, a second-rate governor from a third-rate state."

And you can't argue with this: Had Al Gore picked ANYONE to be his running mate from the state of Florida in 2000, we would be calling him President Gore. I mean, come on, the mayor of Titusville probably could have added the extra couple of hundred votes to the Florida popular vote count, thus safely delivering Florida and the presidency to Al Gore.

Back to McCain. McCain doesn't have any real problems with regard to experience. He's a war hero and he's got a lot of experience (along with his 99 coworkers) screwing things up as a member of the United States Senate. I can also tell you from several intimate meetings I have had with McCain that he is more of a "compassionate conservative" than George W. Bush ever dreamed of being. When he talks about our military veterans, or preserving our environment for future generations, or the need to take care of a pregnant 15-year-old girl illegally crossing our border in 100-degree heat because it is the right thing to do -- he is compassionate and sincere.

What McCain doesn't have -- despite a lifetime 82% American Conservative Union rating -- is the support of those "conservatives" who think they own the definition of what a "conservative" is. We'll skip commenting on why these people are so threatened by McCain and get right to the meat of the issue: how to get these pea-brained Republicans to enthusiastically support John McCain.

Unfortunately for McCain, it is not as simple as it looks.

Some "experts" have speculated he might pick Florida Governor Charlie Crist. Now don't go thinking Charlie is a bible-thumping conservative. He's about as far from being a conservative as you can go in the Republican Party without being thrown out of the Republican Party. No, Charlie Crist brings a nice fake tan, warm smile, and Florida's 27 Electoral College votes. Those are all the pluses on Charlie. On the other hand, Charlie Crist has more unchecked baggage than a bankrupt airline. The national media would have a field day digging up dirt on this guy. And more importantly, if McCain picks Charlie Crist because it needs him to win Florida, McCain's campaign is in more trouble than a Baptist preacher at a police raid of an adult video store. Florida is a must-win state for McCain, and he should do well here (probably even better) without Charlie on the ticket. Florida is full of veterans, old people and Jewish voters from the Northeast. These are all demographics Barack Obama has done poorly with in the primaries. McCain should eat Obama's lunch in Florida sans Charlie Crist.

Or McCain might pick someone to fill a void in an area he is perceived as being weak. Someone like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour comes to mind. He's been a great governor. After hurricane Katrina, when the Democrats in Louisiana stood around pointing fingers at each other and wondering why they didn't use the 1,127 parked school buses to evacuate poor people with no cars from New Orleans, Governor Barbour got to work to clean up the mess in his state. As governor, he's fought for lower taxes, individual rights, and "right-to-life" issues -- all red meat stuff self-defining conservatives say is necessary to be a true conservative. Barbour also brings a lot of experience schmoozing the Washington establishment (an area where McCain is arguably weak). Barbour would certainly fill a void with the inside-the-Beltway crowd. He is the former head of the Republican National Committee, is a former lobbyist, and he has one of the most extensive Rolodex's in GOP circles. But that strength of Barbour's is also his weakness. The Obama campaign would paint him as another fixture of the Washington establishment. Barbour also has a couple of incidents in his background that a less-than-ethical political campaign consultant would use to paint him as a racist. As I understand them, they are very insignificant and certainly don't make Barbour a racist. But it may be enough to keep him from consideration.

On the other hand, winning political campaigns is about pointing out differences and using "wedge" issues to divide voters. Race is a difference and a wedge issue. So maybe McCain picks Barbour and lets the media bring up these very minor and forgivable moments. It would be just enough to remind many voters that Obama is black and to rally many white voters who are threatened by that fact to vote for McCain.

But I doubt it. I think McCain will run a first-class campaign on the issues.

And he'll lose.

Chris Ingram is the president and founder of 411 Communications a corporate and political communications firm, and publisher of Ingram is a frequent pundit on Fox News and CNN, and has written opinion columns for the Washington Times, UPI, Frontpage Florida, and National Review online. E-mail him at:

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