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updated 5/28/2008 11:41:40 AM ET 2008-05-28T15:41:40
ON THE TRAIL

Although it’s much more fun to focus on the who when talking about the vice-presidential sweepstakes — will it be the young governor from Louisiana or the former rival from Massachusetts? can there still be a “dream ticket”? — how the candidates choose their running mates is much more important.

The fundamental question for John McCain and Barack Obama is whether they want their VP choice to play offense or defense. In other words, do they pick a candidate who highlights and reinforces their strengths or one who can help fill in their gaps and defend their weaknesses?

Obama’s great strength thus far has been his ability to stay on message, regardless of the situation. He never tried to go toe-to-toe with Hillary Rodham Clinton on the question of experience. Instead, he was able to redefine the terms of the argument by making judgment, not experience, the real question.

But his lack of experience is still a real concern for voters, even Democratic primary voters. In the latest Diageo/Hotline poll [PDF], conducted April 30 through May 3, the No. 1 reason given by Democratic voters who said they weren’t enthusiastic about voting for Obama in November — or would not vote for him at all — was inexperience (16 percent). Karl Rove, when asked this Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” what Obama could do to deal with the inexperience question, said he should “go get some.”

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Would his VP pick do that? Perhaps. But couldn’t this also steer him off message and turn off the very people who are attracted to Obama because he’s not surrounded by the same old gray-hairs who have dominated the Washington political scene for years? Vice President Dick Cheney may have helped to ease concern among some voters about George W. Bush’s inexperience at the national level, but that was when most voters were actually semi-optimistic about the state of the country. When just 20 percent of voters think that things are on the right track, there’s a reason that Obama's “time for change” message has resonance.

McCain's biggest weakness would be his age and his long tenure in Washington. The age problem is a relatively easy one to fix; after all, there aren’t many potential VP picks older than 70. His guest list at the ranch in Sedona last weekend and his choice of traveling companions suggest that a governor would match the campaign's vision.

Video: Speculation up on Obama veep pick But doesn’t he need some sort of pizzazz factor to compete against a history-making Obama candidacy? A female politician or a real outside-the-box kind of candidate — say, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina — would fit the bill. On the other hand, if McCain’s message is experience, doesn’t he need to keep that message going strong, and does picking someone who has zero campaign or governing experience really do that? It would be better for him to pick someone who allows him to say that even his No. 2 has more experience than Obama.

Second, is the pick worth potentially being overshadowed? Think of the presidential ticket like a bride and a groom, with the nominee as the bride. The VP is important, of course, but he’s not the center of attention — unless he screws up the vows or forgets the ring. The bride is never, ever to be upstaged. That would be all but impossible with an Obama-Clinton ticket. If Democrats are worried about the damage a drawn-out primary has done to the party, just imagine all the drama that would ensue with that pairing. Oh, and we haven’t even gotten into what role Bill Clinton would play. Is there any way he would simply sit on the sidelines and cheer the team along?

The same goes for a McCain ticket that includes Joseph Lieberman. Although it would fit nicely into McCain’s “I’m not Bush” message, Lieberman’s pro-choice position won’t help him with social conservatives who are already wary of the Arizona senator. Plus, the media would spend more time writing about the two senators' differences than their points of agreement on Iraq and Iran.

McCain and Obama have gotten to their current positions thanks to their relentless focus on offense. By choice and circumstance, they have chartered a path that focuses on their own strengths rather than the weaknesses of their opponents. It seems only appropriate, then, that their VP picks would fit the same mold.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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