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Obama's Best Veep Choice is Gone

By Steven Stark

Inundated with stories in the past few weeks about the end of the Clinton campaign and the rise of Obama-mania, the press missed the development that is likely to have the strongest impact on the election: Barack Obama lost his best vice-president option when Ohio governor Ted Strickland removed himself from consideration for the number-two spot.

The importance of vice-president selections is always overrated. But in Obama's case, it will have more importance than usual, since voters will use this first "presidential" decision to size up his approach to governing. And in a close election, the selection could prove critical.

There's talk among Democrats that Obama needs to pick someone as new and fresh as he is to preserve the "brand," but the truth is that there's more than enough glitz at the top of the ticket. What Obama needs is a reassuring figure who won't get him in trouble, and who hopefully can bring him a key state.

That's why Strickland made the most sense. There are no perfect choices, but Strickland, 67, came close. The GOP has never won the presidency without carrying the Buckeye State, and as the popular governor of Ohio, Strickland could have gone a long way toward putting it in the Democratic column. He was originally a Hillary Clinton supporter, so choosing him would have helped unify the party. His relative age and experience (he's also served a number of terms in Congress) would have provided a nice complement to Obama's youth, and Strickland's appeal to working-class whites (he has a strong rating from the NRA, for example) might have helped Obama with a group he has so far had trouble reaching.

With Strickland gone, Obama's best choice is probably Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, 64, another Clinton supporter, as well as a former Philadelphia mayor and general chairman of the DNC. Pennsylvania doesn't have quite the swing-state importance of Ohio, but Obama can't afford to lose it, and Rendell might help in neighboring New Jersey, too, as well as among his fellow Jews. (Would some voters balk at a ticket of an African-American and a Jew? Maybe a few, but they wouldn't be voting Democratic anyway.)

And then there was one

In truth, all the other possibilities being mentioned in the press have major problems. The Virginia duo of current governor Tim Kaine and former secretary of the Navy turned first-term senator Jim Webb might put the state in play, but Webb is too interesting (yes, that's a downside for a veep) and outspoken to put on the national scene in a short nine-week campaign, when any diversion could be costly. As for Kaine, he's as new as Obama is -- hardly an asset.

Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas? Same problem as Kaine -- not much experience. The former military man, retired General James Jones? Again, he'd have to make a very quick, favorable impression on the nation, and the move from the insulated military to the wide-open world of politics might be too big of a leap. (He's also close to John McCain.)

Then there are the senior "respected" figures in the party. Former senator George Mitchell of Maine certainly wouldn't embarrass the ticket, and would bring some foreign-policy gravitas, but he also wouldn't bring any new or large states. Former senator Sam Nunn of Georgia has been out of politics so long that he wouldn't be much help in his home state, and his earlier negative stance on gays in the military would hardly endear him to key constituency groups in the party. Former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle couldn't even deliver South Dakota to Obama against Clinton. Former presidential candidate and former representative Richard Gephardt? An intriguing possibility, if he could possibly deliver Missouri -- a big if -- and if Obama could stomach the fact that he's been a lawyer-lobbyist since leaving the House. (Obama campaign manager David Plouffe used to work for Gephardt, which might boost his chances.)

Some have talked of a "coalition" ticket, with Obama selecting Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. It sounds good on paper, but would that really help Obama among working-class whites? Plus, that would give the press the opportunity to write nine weeks of stories contrasting Obama and Hagel's positions on every issue under the sun. That's not a diversion Obama needs either.

That leaves the former candidates. Joe Biden has foreign-policy experience, but is too likely to make a verbal gaffe. Bill Richardson constantly gets vetted for the job and then not selected, indicating potential weaknesses. John Edwards didn't bring that much to the table last time with John Kerry. (He's not particularly popular in North Carolina.) Chris Dodd deserves consideration, but does picking a Washington insider distract from Obama's core message of change? Besides, this past week the Wall Street Journal tied Dodd to two controversial personal-mortgage loans he received from Countrywide Financial Corp.

That means the best former-candidate choice might be former New Jersey senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley, though in his brief 2000 run he had the same problem attracting working-class votes that Obama seems to have.

Hillary Clinton would be just about the worst selection possible. Her image and baggage would overshadow the nominee, and the truth is that she doesn't bring that much to the ticket that he shouldn't win by himself, anyway. (All those working-class whites who supported her in the primary were, unfortunately, more anti-Obama than pro-Clinton.) Her husband would be a constant distraction. And it would be hard to run as the candidate of the future with this figure from the past hanging around.

So, the best choice is gone. That leaves Obama with Rendell and, possibly, Gephardt or Bradley as backup choices if things don't work out. Yes, Obama could have done better with Strickland. But on the plus side, any of these three would strengthen the ticket and put the burden on McCain to make a selection that matches it.

Boston Phoenix


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