The Strategy Behind Kerry's Veepstakes

Here's a rundown of the top contenders for running mate and the possible impact each would have in the fight for the White House

He has the Presidential nomination locked up. Now John Kerry faces his next big task: picking a running mate. Potential Vice-Presidents have been quietly auditioning for months: Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has boosted his profile in Washington, while New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson got plenty of TV time during his state's primary. Then there's John Edwards, whose surprise rise to become Kerry's chief challenger makes him a strong contender for the No. 2 slot. Still, for all the jockeying, at this point, potential Veeps can't do much to improve their chances.

"Candidates choose Vice-Presidents based on the sole criterion of how they can help win the election," says Rhodes College political scientist Michael Nelson. In recent elections, that has meant balancing two often-conflicting strategies -- diversification and amplification. For the first, think FDR and John Nance Garner in 1932 or John F. Kennedy's 1960 Boston-to-Austin connection, when Lyndon B. Johnson was picked to lock up a wavering Texas.

But in today's media-driven campaigns, the electoral map can be overshadowed by image-making concerns: Bill Clinton tapped fellow Southern baby boomer Al Gore to drive home the image of youth and New Democratic centrism. Kerry, too, must weigh geography against the message he wants voters to get as he ponders the list of Veep wannabes, including:

The Sunshine Boys: Democrats eager for revenge -- and Florida's 25 electoral votes -- will urge Kerry to look at the state's senators, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson. But Graham's brief and erratic run for the No. 1 spot unnerved many Dems, and Nelson is untested on the national stage. Besides, an all-Senate ticket would only play into GOP jibes that Kerry is a typical Washington pol.

Heartland Heroes: Representative Richard A. Gephardt has appeal in key Midwestern battlegrounds, including his home state of Missouri and heavily unionized Ohio. But the 63-year-old lifelong legislator doesn't get voters thinking about tomorrow. Kerry could complement his national-security edge with Vilsack's domestic-policy credentials -- if anyone outside Des Moines knew about them.

Military Might: For a campaign on national-security steroids, decorated Lieutenant Kerry could mobilize retired General Wesley Clark. Arkansan Clark didn't impress insiders during his first political race and probably wouldn't help win Dixie. But an all-brass ticket could quell Republican charges that Democrats are soft on defense.

Hispanic Heft: Richardson could be the first Hispanic on a national ticket, and he hails from the Southwest, a Democratic target. In an extremely tight election, New Mexico's five electoral votes -- awarded to Al Gore by less than 400 votes in 2000 -- could be crucial.

The Dazzler: Edwards -- the mill worker's son whose stump skills bring back memories of Clinton -- would inject charisma and vigor into a campaign still prone to Boston Brahmin stiffness. In open primaries, Edwards has scored with independents and Republicans. Still, the North Carolina senator probably couldn't carry his own state -- and Kerry would have to work hard to gin up chemistry with his ex-rival.

As Kerry basks in his Super Tuesday triumph, no one can say what will drive his decision. But with George W. Bush ready to pull the trigger on a $200 million media onslaught, the nominee-in-waiting doesn't have much time to spare.

By Alexandra Starr in Washington, D.C.

Edited by Mike McNamee

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