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The Keys to McCain's VP Pick

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(L. to R.:) Phil Coale / AP; Joe Raedle / Getty; Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Florida Governor Charlie Crist, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and Louisana Governor Bobby Jindal.

When you are running for President, you can't exactly just have a few friends over on the weekend, especially when the friends have been touted as possible running mates, and their names have been leaked to the New York Times. If that happens, a Memorial Day barbecue suddenly begins to look a lot like a job interview, or at the very least, a publicity stunt.

But John McCain keeps telling everyone to just calm down about his holiday social plans. "It's just having a group of friends for Memorial Day weekend," McCain said Thursday afternoon, after a rally at an airplane hangar in Stockton, Calif. "It's no more and it's no less. I want to assure you."

Brooke Buchanan, McCain's traveling press secretary, underlined this point about an hour earlier on the campaign plane. "It's a purely social — let me repeat, social — weekend," she said. "He will be grilling."

But people love to speculate, and McCain has given them more than enough to pique their interest. Among the guests who will be joining him over Memorial Day are former G.O.P. candidate Mitt Romney, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, and Florida governor Charlie Crist. Two other Senators, Connecticut's Joe Lieberman and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, are also expected to show. Former Arkansas Gov. and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who will be on a cruise with his wife on their 34th wedding anniversary, will not be able to attend, along with Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who has other obligations.

Depending on who you talk to, any of those names could be placed on a McCain long list for the vice presidency, a list that McCain has said includes about 20 names. But at this point the potential VP field is difficult to handicap, in part because campaign aides continue to insist that the process remains in its early stages. Still, veepstakes' enthusiasts can take comfort in the fact that McCain and his staff have dropped hints about some of the criteria they will use. These include:

—The campaign is looking for a running mate who will be relatively youthful. McCain has said that he is aware of the "enhanced importance" of a vice presidential pick, because of his own age. McCain adviser Charlie Black has gone even further, saying a younger pick could minimize the age issue in much the same way the selection of George H. W. Bush minimized the age issue for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

—McCain wants a thorough process to ensure a running mate who is well prepared. In an interview on his campaign bus in early April, McCain described Dan Quayle, who served as vice president from 1989 until 1993, as a cautionary tale. He said that while he liked Quayle, he felt the former vice president had "not been briefed and prepared for some of the questions."

—The chosen running mate is unlikely to offend the social/fiscal conservative base of the Republican party. In a recent appearance on MSNBC's Hardball, McCain was asked if he could pick a pro-choice Republican like former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge. "I don't know if it would stop him but it would be difficult," McCain said. The bigger political danger is clear to McCain's allies. In recent months, he has had some success in uniting the Republican Party behind his candidacy, and he would not want to reopen old concerns among the party base about his conservative commitment just weeks before the party convention.

Beyond that, speculators are left with little information to go on. Other names that have been floated as possible McCain picks include Rob Portman, a former Ohio congressman, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, who is now working as his adviser.

But the campaign is not yet giving off any hints of who might be leading the internal race for the VP slot, or even if the ranking has begun. So America is left to speculate about the importance of McCain's barbecue guest list, while the candidate claims over and over again that it does not mean anything at all.