Could John McCain really not have settled yet on a running mate, just 24 hours before he's scheduled to unveil his choice at a big rally in Dayton, Ohio? That's what he said in a radio interview today. It's certainly possible. McCain is an instinctive politician, known to make decisions privately and then spring them on his aides as a fait accompli. If the presumptive GOP nominee is having a hard time making up his mind or if he's considering whether to roll the dice by making a dramatic, unexpected choice he could be keeping his own counsel.
Or, on the other hand, he could simply be playing the media, pretending to be undecided in order to generate a little more ink about him on a day that's meant to be all about his opponent. Sources close to the Arizona Senator say he's almost certainly already decided on a running mate, but that the circle of people who know the decision remains tiny probably just his top campaign aides Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis, and presumably his wife Cindy. "This is very tightly held," says an adviser who has been boxed out of Veep discussions. "McCain doesn't like to be forced into a decision. The fewer people banging on him with advice on something like this, the better, as far as he's concerned."
Much as there were in the days and hours leading up to the announcement of Joe Biden as Barack Obama's running mate, rumors about who really have spots on McCain's short list have been piling up all week, and all day. Mitt Romney, McCain's rival during the primaries, remains the consensus choice among party professionals. And there was a report this afternoon that Romney's sister's house in the battleground state of Michigan was given a security sweep by the Secret Service. Another report has Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, also a longtime short-lister and a ubiquitous presence in Denver this week, clearing his schedule for the rest of today and tomorrow.
Then there's the surprise category, featuring Joe Lieberman and, making a late appearance in the Veepstakes, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Sources close to the campaign and the candidate say that if McCain could make his decision based solely on what he wants, he'd go with Lieberman, the Democratic-turned-independent Senator from Connecticut who served as Al Gore's running mate in 2000. Picking Lieberman, however, would be a huge gamble for McCain. Social conservatives, having only recently come to terms with McCain himself, would loudly oppose the selection of a pro-choice New Englander who, on nearly every issue except national security, is a lifelong liberal, including the issue of abortion. Some might walk out of the convention or turn their backs on Lieberman when he speaks. And while picking Lieberman might remind swing voters of McCain's reputation for independence and bipartisanship, a rebellion from within the GOP base could tank McCain's chances of winning. "The eruption would be huge," says one social conservative leader who is waiting nervously to see what McCain does. "The race is too close. There's no need to do something like that. McCain doesn't need to throw a Hail Mary here."
Says a GOP operative who informally advises the campaign: "All I can tell you is this: if Lieberman is picked, the dome of the convention hall will blow off. There will be a mushroom cloud."
Then there is Hutchison, who is also personally pro-choice but who has voted consistently with conservatives on abortion. Though social conservatives would have doubts about her as the pick, they're not likely to oppose it or complain about it as passionately as they would Lieberman. "If she said all the right things on parental notification, partial birth abortion, judicial appointments it would be difficult but we could survive it," says a Republican consultant with ties to Evangelicals. "Bottom line, it wouldn't be a Lieberman-like blowup."
In the end, all the speculation about Lieberman, Hutchison and other surprise choices like former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge may be just that speculation fueled by deliberate misinformation, head fakes and uninformed analysis. With Obama's pick, consensus was building around the idea that it would be Biden in the days leading up the announcement. There were a series of rumors that seemed aimed at throwing off the media, but in the end, the pick turned out to be Biden. The same may be true here. Romney and Pawlenty have long been considered the two most likely candidates. They still are. Occam's Razor says the most likely explanation for something is the simplest explanation. Which means it's Romney. Or Pawlenty. Or ...