In D.C., Mash Notes Are Flying for McCain

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The heavy political brains in Washington have gone all runny. Everyone wants to know whom George Bush is going to pick to be his vice president but no one actually knows anything. In a town where that isn't much of a restraint, the lack of information has only increased the confecting of opinions. The smallest pieces of information have been whispered in urgent phone calls, tossed off with an arched eyebrow at Spring Valley dinners and sent with SPECIAL BOLD LETTERING to e-mail addresses across the city. The cycle of information is constantly churning and the tone has devolved from "Meet The Press" heights into chatter that sounds more like middle schoolers trading gossip about crushes.

A collage of these highly speculative conversations I've had or heard about goes something like this (gum smacking and cooing available with Quicktime plugin):

"Ridge called McCain, who said he didn't want the job but if Bush called and asked, McCain said he'd do it. Keating hasn't been called in weeks and says he isn't waiting by the phone, but I hear Kasich is saying he's been called."

"A lobbyist I know says Elizabeth Dole is a possibility again."

"Davis called Cheney and said Bush should really pick McCain."

"What did Cheney say?"

"I don't know. Cheney himself might be in the mix."

In the last 24 hours, the most hastily scribbled mash notes have been about John McCain. The madness started this week on Tuesday when Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania called McCain late in the afternoon to sound out the Arizona senator on the vice presidential matter. That Ridge was making the call at all was notable. Once considered a prime choice for the spot himself, Ridge suggested that he was now out of the running — his pro-choice views made him too radioactive for the GOP's social conservatives to accept. Ridge wanted to know if McCain would reconsider his opposition to the post. McCain reiterated that he didn't want the job and didn't want to be asked, but at the end of his string of denials McCain conceded: "If I were asked, you know what I'd say." Ridge knew his old friend was saying he would take the job and asked if he could pass along the news to Bush. McCain said yes.

That did it. When word leaked Thursday that McCain had opened the door a sliver, the entire city started a mad round of speculation. Anxious to fan the flames were House Republicans who have been trying to put together a Bush-McCain ticket since the end of the GOP primaries. The Arizona senator is the most popular Republican in the country and vulnerable House members have the fistful of polls to prove it. If McCain goes on the ticket they think they'll be able to keep control of the House.

Tom Davis, the Virginia congressman who heads the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, called Dick Cheney, who is heading up Bush's vice presidential hunt, and tried to make the case for McCain. Cheney — who some have whispered might be the top pick on Bush's list — reportedly was not sufficiently moved by the pitch. Then Davis collaborated with more than 60 other House Republicans in a letter to the Bush campaign asking that McCain be reconsidered. Sent by fax late Thursday night, there is no indication that it landed on fertile ground or elicited much of a response.

If George Bush needed a reminder about how difficult it would be to share his administration with John McCain, he was getting it. Until this point, Bush had been able to rely on McCain's previous statement that he didn't want to be asked to serve as vice president. When probed, Bush could simply say that he "took McCain at his word." Well, now McCain's word was shifting. Whomever Bush finally picks, he'll be asked why he didn't pick McCain and if he doesn't pick him, there will be questions about why Bush didn't have the guts to pick his former rival.

With word out, McCain and his staff tried to reiterate their earlier position. "John's position has not changed. He doesn't want to be asked," says McCain political aide John Weaver, who made a special call to Bush campaign manager Joe Allbaugh on Friday to make that point. But that won't stop the speculation. Cheney's office called to get McCain's weekend telephone numbers, as they did with several other contenders. Saturday, McCain and Bush are attending the funeral of Georgia senator Paul Coverdell in Atlanta. Despite the solemnity of the event, very little of what the two men do at the service will go undetected and unremarked upon.