McCain's VP dilemma: Appeal to moderates, or conservatives?

Though Lieberman's name floated, GOP candidate must court evangelicals.

us special 2 224 (photo credit: )
us special 2 224
(photo credit: )
While the Democratic candidates continue to pummel each other on the campaign trail, Arizona Senator John McCain's clear path to the Republican nomination means he can turn his attention to lofty matters such as choosing his running mate - and pondering the dilemma that confronts him. McCain has succeeded in becoming the last Republican candidate standing based largely on his reputation as a "maverick" who has been willing to take risks by bucking his own party on issues such as global warming and torture and reach across the aisle to get things done. Though that persona has won him support among independents and moderates, including Republican-oriented Jews, many of the centrist positions he's taken, particularly on campaign finance reform and immigration, have hurt him among the traditional Republican base of the evangelical Right. Part of McCain's task after winning enough primaries to earn the nomination at the convention this September has been to reach out to that constituency. On Wednesday, McCain disclosed that his campaign had already started the process of choosing a list of potential vice presidential candidates. Just who makes the final cut will depend largely on whether McCain wants to try to shore up his support among evangelicals - since their turnout could be the key to victory in November - at the cost of independent votes, or whether he wants to solidify his position as a bipartisan-minded iconoclast in order to appeal to the crucial "swing vote" constituencies, at the expense of further depressing turnout among the hard Right. Though the Jewish community is hardly a swing constituency, since it almost always votes overwhelmingly Democratic, McCain has turned more Jewish heads than the average Republican candidate - heads that would presumably snap back to Democratic attention should he go with a sharply right-wing candidate. "There is visceral angst among Jews about the hard Christian right and their involvement in American politics, and if McCain picked the 'wrong' person, that would have a negative impact on how Jews would vote for the ticket," said William Daroff, who heads the United Jewish Communities' Washington office and is a former Republican Jewish Coalition official. He added that there might be some evangelical candidates who wouldn't be problematic. On the other hand, should McCain go full court press on the bipartisan front, he might maintain his current Jewish support and then some. One of the names frequently floated under this rubric is that of Joseph Lieberman, who ran as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000. The Orthodox Jewish senator is now an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, as well as a strong supporter of McCain's who campaigned for him during the Republican primaries. Daroff pointed out another quality that Lieberman would contribute to the ticket: "pizzazz" to compete with a Democratic candidate who would be either the first African American or the first female presidential nominee. "If excitement's important [to McCain], maybe having a Jewish Democrat with a Republican nominee would be something to show that he's a maverick and that not just the Democrats, but also the Republicans, can make history on their side of the aisle," Daroff said. Lieberman has dismissed such suggestions, and many political observers think a reprise of his role as vice presidential nominee is unlikely. Other diversity candidates whose names have surfaced include US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. The other side of the spectrum includes social conservative governors and senators, as well as McCain's one-time rival for the Republican nomination, former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee. While many other names have been floated, attention has particularly focused on Florida Governor Charlie Crist, whose endorsement helped McCain win the crucial primary there. Florida is the crucial battleground state that handed the 2000 election to current US President George W. Bush. Crist on the ticket would help McCain put Florida safely on the Republican side in November. So in addition to weighing which constituency he needs more, McCain will also consider who represents the most politically significant regions, as well as who will shore up his other potential weaknesses - a lack of a financial background at a time of economic turmoil; a young face to balance out his 71 years; an executive to strengthen a resume of US Senate service. McCain said he hopes to make his decision ahead of the Republican Convention, but the exact timing could depend on what his aides perceive to be the most advantageous media moment. "They'll be sticking their finger up in the air and saying, 'Okay, what boxes do we need to cross off the list with our vice presidential nominee?'" said Daroff, pointing to the many issues that come into play. "When you're looking for a vice president, there are a lot of [rules]. The first is: Do no harm."