Image: Bill and Hillary Clinton
Todd Heisler  /  The New York Times
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, appear together at a campaign rally in Louisville, Ky., on Monday.
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updated 5/23/2008 3:11:49 PM ET 2008-05-23T19:11:49

While Senator Hillary Rodham Clintonand her advisers insist that she is determined to win the Democratic nomination, friends of the couple say that former President Bill Clinton, for one, has begun privately contemplating a different outcome for her: As Senator Barack Obama’s running mate.

The reports about Mr. Clinton’s musings surface as the Obama camp has quietly begun the process of searching for a partner on the Democratic ticket.

The prospect of an Obama-Clinton ticket has been fodder for political gossip for months, with some Democratic leaders pushing the idea as a way to unify the party. The Obama and Clinton campaigns have consistently shrugged off the idea, however, and Mrs. Clinton has been adamant that she is only interested in the presidency.

Yet anyone who knows the Clintons is well aware that, at times, they come to politics with different motivations. Both of them want to return to the White House; Mrs. Clinton, of New York, also enjoys being a senator, while Mr. Clinton, according to associates, sees the vice presidency as perhaps her best path to becoming president someday if she loses the nominating fight. And Mr. Clinton has his own ideas about his wife’s best interests — even if she sometimes does not share them.

A spokesman for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign said Thursday that Mr. Clinton had not had private conversations in which he was pushing her for the vice presidency or arguing that she deserved it, and that he believed the choice of a running mate was a personal one for the nominee.

Friends of the former president say his musings have been more casual: He believes that an Obama-Clinton ticket could help unify the party, and he thinks she has earned a meeting with Mr. Obama to discuss the possibility.

According to these friends, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to be identified revealing private talks, Mr. Clinton believes that his wife’s victories in major primary battles, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, and the 16 million votes cast for her candidacy make her the proper choice for Mr. Obama.

"If she’s not going to be the nominee, then he wants her in the second spot," said one friend of the Clintons. "In the long run, it’s the best way for her to run again in 2016."

Time magazine first reported Mr. Clinton’s interest in the No. 2 slot for Mrs. Clinton on Thursday.

Clinton advisers were emphatic that neither Mr. Clinton nor anyone else in the campaign had given up on Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy, and they emphasized that no efforts were being made to position Mrs. Clinton to be the running mate with the Illinois senator.

"Senator Clinton is solely focused on being the Democratic nominee," said Howard Wolfson, the Clinton campaign’s communications director. "I have seen no interest on her part in being vice president."

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The chief strategist for the Obama campaign, David Axelrod, said Thursday that no overtures had been made by Mr. Clinton or any prominent supporters to place Mrs. Clinton on the ticket.

"There have been no contacts between the campaigns, and no one is looking for a deal of any kind," Mr. Axelrod said in an interview. "She’s running for the nomination for president, as we are. We’re focusing on closing out the nominating fight. We’ll deal with vice presidential questions in sequence."

Mr. Obama has asked a tight circle of advisers to set up a confidential search for prospective running mates, with a goal of having an early list of names to begin sifting through shortly after the final two primaries on June 3.

With the Democratic National Conventionthree months away, Mr. Obama is already about two months behind the period when preliminary vetting would normally have begun. The search will be guided by Jim Johnson, a longtime Democratic hand in Washington.

Mr. Johnson, who is a vice chairman of the Obama campaign, led the vice presidential searches for Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, in 2004 and for Walter F. Mondalein 1984. In recent weeks, officials said, he started to compile information — largely biographical and political — for a list of potential running mates.

Democratic officials on Thursday discussed Mr. Johnson’s role on condition of anonymity because Mr. Obama had demanded that the process be kept secret and they did not want him to know they were talking about it. Advisers to Mr. Obama declined to discuss the search or any elements of the process.

Video: Who benefits from 'dream ticket'? Mr. Obama declined on Thursday to discuss the role Mr. Johnson would be playing.

"I haven’t hired him," Mr. Obama told reporters at the Capitol. "He’s not on retainer. I’m not paying him any money. He is a friend of mine. I know him. I am not commenting on vice presidential matters because I have not won this nomination."

Mr. Obama, who this week crossed the threshold of winning a majority of pledged delegates, intends to wait until next month before declaring victory in the Democratic nominating fight.

A wide array of Democrats — from Congress, governor’s offices, the military and the private sector — will be included on an early list of possible ticket mates. Mr. Obama has told his associates that he wants to keep an open mind and to cast a wide net, even possibly including independents or Republicans.

The growing discussion about a ticket of Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton is largely being fueled by Clinton supporters, although it is a suggestion that Obama supporters do not dismiss. Also expected to be included on a list will be most of the former Democratic presidential candidates — Gov. Bill Richardsonof New Mexico, former Senator John Edwardsof North Carolina and Senators Joseph R. Biden Jr.of Delaware and Christopher J. Doddof Connecticut.

Prominent supporters of Mrs. Clinton also are sure to be included, like Senator Evan Bayhof Indiana and Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio.

Jerry Crawford, a Des Moines lawyer who is the Midwest co-chairman of the Clinton campaign, said in an interview Thursday that he supported the notion of Mrs. Clinton serving as a vice presidential candidate for Mr. Obama should he become the nominee. Mr. Crawford said he was "freelancing" and had not spoken with the Clintons about it, but he called the partnership "more of an irresistible force than either of them alone."

Some Democratic supporters of Mrs. Clinton said Thursday that it was premature to talk about slotting her as Mr. Obama’s running mate.

"I can see it happening, though I still like the idea of Clinton-Obama much more," said Denny Farrell, a New York assemblyman who is a convention superdelegate.

The idea of an Obama-Clinton ticket is on the minds of some voters, too.

At the end of a meeting with voters Thursday in Boca Raton, Fla., a man asked whether Mr. Obama would consider picking any candidate, even someone who might be challenging to him.

"Two weeks from now, we will know who wins the Democratic nomination," Mr. Obama replied. "I don’t want to jump the gun. I will tell you though that my goal is to have the best possible government — and that means me winning. So I am very practical-minded guy."

This article, As Race Wanes, Talk of Clinton as No. 2 Grows, first appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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