Since I've already sold my soul to the devil by coming out for a Republican, John McCain, for president, I might as well go all the way and tell McCain how to beat the Democrats in November: by choosing Condoleezza Rice as his running mate. It may not be easy getting her to agree; she's supposedly eager to go back to Stanford, and after being national security adviser and secretary of state for the last eight years, she may not see the chance of becoming vice president as such an impressive offer. If that's her attitude, McCain should remind Rice that he's an old man, so there's a possibility that if they win the election, she'd have the Oval Office handed to her automatically at some point, and that even if he completed a term or two, assuming it went reasonably well, she'd be in the catbird seat to get elected president in 2012 or 2016. And if these arguments don't work, he should just beg or threaten, because I think a McCain-Rice ticket would be very hard for Hillary Clinton - the likely Democratic candidate after Super Tuesday - to beat. WHEN YOU think of the leading American political figures on the horizon, Rice is right up there. She has more experience in world affairs than anyone, she's probably smarter and more knowledgeable than anyone, and she knows how to get her way. The point can credibly be made that she would be ready to assume the presidency at a moment's notice - a point the Republicans have to be able to make because McCain would enter the White House at age 72, the oldest of any new president in US history. Rice is attractive and extremely telegenic. She's also a woman and an African-American, which by now aren't fatal flaws in a candidate for president or vice-president, but probably net advantages. This year, for the Republicans, I'd say Rice's gender and race would be nothing less than the gift of life. Against a Democratic ticket that's definitely going to have a woman or a black man, Barack Obama, at the top - and may have a woman or a black man in the second spot, too - the Republicans have to get some "diversity." They can't run an old, Republican white guy for president and a middle-aged Republican white guy for vice-president - not against this year's Democratic team, not when "change" is supposedly the thing American voters are looking for. SO MUCH of McCain's appeal is based on being a "maverick," someone who can attract Republicans and Democrats alike. If his running mate is a major Republican figure - all of whom are white men - he will be narrowing his identity and his appeal terribly. It'll make him look like the very thing he's not - a boring, predictable Republican hack. And if McCain picks a white or Hispanic Republican woman, or a Hispanic or African-American Republican man - none of whom are nationally prominent, with the possible exception of Cuban-born Florida Senator Mel Martinez - it will look like a vote-getting gimmick, which it obviously would be. A presidential candidate in his 70s has no right to pick a gimmick candidate for vice-president. The one "diversity" running mate McCain could choose who definitely would not be a gimmick, who would be qualified strictly on her record to take over as president if necessary, and who, if anything, would be over-qualified as vice-president, is Rice. After Tuesday's primaries, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee becomes probably the leading choice to run with McCain; by sweeping the southern primaries, Huckabee proved his strength among Republican evangelicals and "social conservatives," whose distrust of McCain is thought to be the Arizona senator's biggest electoral vulnerability, the one he most needs to neutralize. Pairing Christian pastor Huckabee with McCain would neutralize that distrust, according to the consensus wisdom, and thereby prevent masses of Republican evangelicals and social conservatives from staying home on Election Day. BUT I don't think that's McCain's biggest worry. I think the prospect of Hillary Clinton or a liberal with the middle name of Hussein becoming president is enough to get all those true-believing Republicans to the polls to vote Republican. I'd say McCain's biggest worry is that he won't get independents and moderate Democrats to vote for him - which he won't if he runs with Mike Huckabee or somebody else chosen to shore up his support among the Republican Right. And the best way I can think of, in fact the only way I can think of, for McCain to pull independents and Democratic moderates away from Hillary and/or Obama is by having Rice on his team. True, she brings the baggage of the Iraq war with her - but McCain does too, so Rice isn't going to weigh him down on that issue anymore than he already is; and anyway the point of McCain's campaign is that the war can be won, that because of the surge the war is being won, and that the most disastrous thing America could do in Iraq is withdraw, which is what the Democrats promise to do. THAT'S THE key message of McCain's campaign, it's as clear-cut as can be, and whoever rejects it isn't going to reject any more strongly because Rice is McCain's running mate. So her role in the Iraq war shouldn't really be baggage for the GOP ticket at all. Furthermore, as Republicans go, as the Bush administration goes, Rice is a moderate on foreign policy. On the spectrum of Bush's advisers, she and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are what passes for the left side. That's also going to appeal to independents and middle-of-the-road Democrats. Besides, she's a good Christian from Alabama, which ought to pacify the evangelicals somewhat. I am a Democrat who's never voted for a Republican in his life, but I want McCain to win because I'm convinced that an American withdrawal from Iraq will be a horror show. Beyond that, when I think of all the other issues and personal characteristics to consider before supporting a presidential candidate, I find him easily the most acceptable of any Republican. Second to McCain, among Republicans, I put Rice. She'd help him more than any other running mate to get to the White House, and she'd do a far and away better job than any of them once she's inside.