Image: Obama
Michael Conroy  /  AP
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks before a panel discussion on national security at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., Wednesday, July 16, 2008.
By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 7/18/2008 5:30:31 PM ET 2008-07-18T21:30:31

America's favorite quadrennial summer past time is almost over. Of course, I write not of the Olympics but of the Veepstakes. For only the fourth time in 40 years have we been treated to a spectacle in both parties.

Oh, how we members of the chattering class, no matter how well informed, love to speculate on the number two. The standards we set for the VP pick are fascinating: We want the presidential nominees to have a more stringent standard for their VP choice than the average primary voter had for their presidential choice.

Think about it. How many presidential candidates over the years would have ended up as the VP pick in that same cycle had they not won their nomination?

Would John Edwards or Howard Dean have considered John Kerry? Consider? Yes. Picked him? Probably not.

Would either Bill Bradley or John McCain have picked Al Gore or George Bush as their running mates in 2000? How about Lamar Alexander in '96? Any chance he would have selected Bob Dole?

And then there's '92. Would any other Democratic nominee have believed Bill Clinton could have vetted well enough to put him on the ticket?

We often put more time and effort into vetting the potential VPs than we do the nominees. That's why this whole process can feel silly.

Of course, no nominee wants to get caught unaware of a potentially damaging personal problem regarding their running mate. It can derail a campaign. Think Tom Eagleton in 1972.

But did we really anticipate Veepstakes devolving into this speculation? Do we really need to openly wonder if Barack Obama is holding secret meetings with prospective running mates in a sauna at his gym?

Part of me hopes Obama is in fact vetting his picks in this distinctive way. I am a sucker for the clandestine political stuff. But if true, it certainly illustrates how picking a VP has gotten out of hand.

In a month, we should know both running mates. Perhaps we’ll know in a week.

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Video: 5 states key in White House race? Conventional Wisdom says Obama will pick sometime in the 10-day window before the Olympics, which happens to be just a few days after he returns from overseas. The C.W. has McCain waiting to announce his pick until the day after Obama's convention acceptance speech.

Of course, we in the media wish one or both of the candidates would borrow a page from history and allow the convention delegates to pick from, say, three acceptable choices. I believe McCain's folks would be tempted by this idea if only to generate interest in the GOP convention following Obama's Denver love-in.

But campaigns are so risk averse these days. No one wants to give up control or create drama, particularly since these conventions are being held so late in the process. Had the conventions come earlier in the summer, it might have been a temptation to try something like this. For McCain in particular it appears too late, if for no other reason than Ron Paul’s supporters appear to have sabotaged a few state conventions.

So on to the speculation game…

One criterion that I believe is too often overlooked now is the "comfort factor." Both nominees are the leaders who prefer to surround themselves with people they like and respect. Sure, both have attempted to sell themselves as politicians who will sit down with anyone with any point of view. But both hate to hear calculation enter the equation in a hiring decision.

It would not surprise me if both men end up making politically risky picks in the name of comfort.

For instance, there's a lot of chatter that McCain is particularly fond of both Tom Ridge and Michael Bloomberg, and that he could see himself partnering with either of these two to help run the country. But politically, both would be tough sells to the socially conservative crowd. Bloomberg is truly a non-starter for McCain, but what about Ridge?

Candidate Brain TrustsIf he picked him, it would feed the fears of some on the right that when push comes to shove McCain would never worry about their issues. Plus the media love to cover fights inside the party which inevitably make the GOP look more out of touch than it is. In spite of the former Governor’s pull in Pennsylvania on Election Day, the risk most likely outweighs the potential benefit.

For Obama, a comfort pick would be Tim Kaine, Kathleen Sebelius or even Jack Reed. All three could bring a little something to the ticket. But we in the media like to focus more on what each would not bring, and what could make these picks potentially treacherous.

Regardless, both nominees may chose comfort over convention. And the conventional wisdom crowd currently appears to be leaning toward Mitt Romney and Joe Biden.

But neither man can put a check in all the right boxes:

1. Do no harm

Tom Eagleton in ‘72 and Bob Dole in ‘76 did not check these boxes. George H.W. Bush in ’80 and Dick Cheney in ‘00 did.

2. Make a great first impression

Al Gore and Joe Lieberman were great first day stories. Dan Quayle was not.

3. Perform well in the VP debate

Lloyd Bentsen and Al Gore were great debaters. Bob Dole and Joe Lieberman… not so much.

4. Become a governing asset

Dick Cheney and Al Gore have redefined the role of the vice president in the minds of the public. It should be a big job, beyond simply checking the health status of the president.

That’s it.

Is it nice if the running mate can help with a resume gap, a constituency group or a state? Of course. But is it a must anymore? I don’t think so. It’s icing on the cake. If he or she’s religion happens to match a key constituency group, great. If they happen to hail from a swing state, terrific. If an expert on a particular issue area, fantastic.

But these needs should NOT be the determining factor for the choice. When a state, constituency group, or resume gap is the driving factor, one or more of the criterion gets compromised and the most important box of all does not get checked…

Do no harm.

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