The interminable Democratic party struggle to select its presidential nominee presents the Republican challenger, Senator John McCain, with both an opportunity and a dilemma. Having locked up his party's nomination, McCain this week will give serious consideration to a shortlist of potential running mates.
Yet while choosing an appealing candidate for the bottom of the Republican ticket is a priority for McCain, the Democratic stalemate may complicate an already difficult choice.
McCain has several significant electoral vulnerabilities, particularly his age, the distrust of his party's Conservative electoral base, the extraordinary unpopularity of the outgoing Republican president, and a weakening economic environment. However, the first two factors could be mitigated, or even eliminated, through the adroit selection of a vice-presidential candidate.
This suggests that the most strategically sound choice to round off a McCain ticket would be a relatively young, appealing candidate with solid credentials as a fiscal and social conservative. There are only a handful of candidates of sufficient stature who fit the bill:
Wall Street favourites
Rob Portman and Christopher Cox have very similar profiles. Both were youngish, intelligent, popular Republican congressmen who gave up their seats in order to occupy important economic posts within the Bush administration: US trade representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget (Portman), and chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (Cox). Both have considerable credibility on Wall Street - an asset given McCain’s self-confessed economic ignorance - and Portman enjoys strong White House backing. However, they have one shared weakness: in the current economic environment, their pro-trade, business-friendly reputations could be a political liability.
'Red meat' conservatives
McCain still has problems on the Right, despite his conservative record, because he is not seen as sufficiently committed to social conservative priorities and does not wear religion on his sleeve. This has led to ceaseless sniping from influential right-wing pundits, such as Rush Limbaugh - who commands an audience of millions. To assuage the core of the Republican coalition, McCain could pick a 'red meat' conservative.
The leading contenders in this category are all state governors: Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Sonny Perdue of Georgia, and Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Barbour is probably the most distinguished of the three, due to his relatively sure-handed response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, but any of them would assuage the concerns of the party's evangelical Christian base. However, these men share a key disadvantage - they would add nothing to the ticket in electoral terms, as any Republican would carry their states with ease.
Finally, McCain could make the relatively daring choice of a moderate partner, in an effort to broaden the Republican ‘big tent’. Possible candidates include Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Senator (and former Democrat) Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, or Florida Governor Charlie Crist. Such a choice would carry major risks - particularly in terms of alienating the party's base - but could redefine the political landscape, perhaps allowing McCain to target previously uncompetitive 'blue states' during the autumn campaign.
However, the prolonged Democratic party nominating contest complicates the choice of a running mate for McCain. A recent polling analysis by University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin suggests that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama present McCain with significantly different political challenges.
Clinton has a stronger grip on the traditional Democratic base, but might have trouble competing with McCain for the support of Independents. She presents a major challenge for him in the northeast and Florida, but is weak in the West -- particularly the traditionally Democratic Pacific Northwest.
Democratic party support for Obama is less solid, especially among white, blue-collar workers. But he would compete strongly with McCain for Independent support, and might bring several traditionally Republican western and 'border' states into play. He would be a particularly daunting challenge for McCain in Colorado and Virginia.
Thus, McCain's choice of running mate is, to some extent, hostage to fortune. A strategy of delay, until the Democratic convention in August, may be the soundest approach.