Obama's Vice-Presidential Dilemma

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Left to Right: J. Scott Applewhite / AP ; Chip Somodevilla / Getty ; Brendan Smialowski / Getty

From left, Governor Tim Kaine, Senator Barack Obama and Senator Joe Biden

So, does he double down — or does he compensate?

That's the stark choice facing Barack Obama as he ponders whom to tap in the next few weeks as his running mate. Now that Virginia Governor Tim Kaine's name has popped to the top of the charts as a possible Obama sidekick — perhaps to be replaced in a few days by some other hot possibility — the question helps clarify the next few weeks: Does Obama counterbalance his relative inexperience in general, and in foreign policy and defense matters in particular, and go with a trusted old-timer or pick a fresh face, someone who can pose as an agent of change, a relative newcomer just like himself?

Does he double down on his weakness or does he compensate for it?

For months, much of the Democratic Party intelligentsia in Washington has insisted that Obama must do the latter and pick an older, white, foreign-policy or establishment figure such as Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, even Senator Hillary Clinton of New York. The chatter from this class has been logical, based in polls and nonstop — and it stems in part from the fact that many of those who have been spreading it are aligned with some of those potential veeps.

But there has never been much evidence that anyone in Chicago shared that view.

The alternate universe goes like this: The last thing Obama ought to do is pick a figure from the Washington establishment. He needs, instead, to reinforce his message of change and shake up the status quo with an outsider untainted by the Capitol games. Such a pick would be aimed not at the party's base but at the pool of independent voters who still aren't comfortable with Obama and are looking all summer for signs that he is both something different and up to the job. Those who back this approach have been talking about Kaine for months in this context, as well as former Virginia governor Mark Warner, Kansas governor Kathleen Sibelius and Virginia Senator Jim Webb (before he took himself out of the contest).

Noting the various qualities he is searching for in a running mate, Obama said on Meet the Press Sunday that "I'm going to want somebody who shares a vision of the country — where we need to go; that we've got to fundamentally change not only our policies but how our politics work, how business is done in Washington."

Of course, Obama could try to split the difference. And parked somewhere between these poles is Senator Evan Bayh, a moderate Democrat from Indiana who has been a member of the Intelligence and Armed Services committees and backed Hillary Clinton during the primary but has kept a comparatively low profile despite a decade in Washington. He has been elected statewide five times in a state where his last name is something close to hard currency, though that is hardly a guarantee that he could help Obama carry the state. Bayh's also a little short on excitement, but that's the one area where Obama can carry the ticket all by himself.

In any case, the choice between doubling down and compensating for weakness is not unlike the judgment awaiting Republican John McCain. He could look to a younger Republican who is more oriented toward domestic policy — such as Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who is 48, or former Bush Administration official and Ohio Congressman Rob Portman of Cincinnati, who is 52. Or he could forgo those relative newcomers and instead try to underscore his own experience by tapping former governor, businessman and Olympics organizer Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who is 61.