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Fineman: Kerry plans early veep pick

What can Sen. John  Kerry do to get some momentum back in his campaign?  Well, here’s one possible momentum changer: the naming of a running mate. MSNBC contributor Howard Fineman reports.
Kerry may move more quickly than usual in selecting his running mate in part because of the impending release of a book written by former President Clinton, who joined Kerry and former President Carter at a Washington event last month.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Sen. John Kerry has raised tons of cash since March, but otherwise it’s been a mediocre two months. His “negatives” are up, his horserace position is lagging, and the cosmic hum of doubt is audible in the Democratic galaxy despite the president’s own sagging poll numbers as an anti-terrorism leader. George Bush is trapped in Iraq, but Kerry can’t seem to take advantage. So what’s a Democrat to do? Well, here’s one possible momentum changer I’m told he plans to offer soon: the naming of a running mate.

Two well-placed sources inside the campaign have told me that the goal is to pick a No. 2 by the end of May, which would be far earlier than the norm. “It could slip,” said one, “but that’s the target.” Another factor that could accelerate the process: Bill Clinton’s autobiography, “My Life,” which is now scheduled to be unveiled in late June. The media buzz surrounding it could last well into July, the pre-convention period normally dominated by veep talk.

The advantages of naming a running mate early are pretty clear. Kerry needs a sidekick ASAP to help him cope with Bush-Cheney attack ads. Kerry himself can't be answering every charge. He needs someone to take over fund-raising duties. He needs to change the subject from the debate over medals and ribbons. And he needs to make a clear statement about his essential values — and choosing a running mate is one way to do so. 

The Kerry campaign has confirmed that it is vetting two obvious possibilities: Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. But that’s hardly the end of the list.

Vilsack on the short list, too
A hot name in the inner circle remains Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Even before James Johnson was named as Kerry’s veep vetter, I am told, he was making discreet inquiries about Vilsack among Democratic insiders. At a dinner with one of them two months ago, Johnson kept steering the conversation back to the Iowan. “Jim seemed awfully curious about Vilsack,” said his dinner partner. A lesser-known figure that bears watching, I’m told: Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. “He just convinced his Republican legislature to raise taxes by a billion dollars,” said one plugged-in Dem. “Pretty impressive.”

Johnson, a tight-lipped Minnesotan who ran Walter Mondale’s ill-fated 1984 campaign (and who went on to a successful, if quiet, run as CEO of Fannie Mae) isn’t talking about Kerry’s especially secretive selection process. But I am told by others that he and Kerry and the rest of the inner circle have settled on a second point: They aren’t going to insist on the old criterion that the running mate must be able to “guarantee” a victory in a specific state. “It’s not about a state, it’s about the national dynamics,” said one source. “Besides, none of these guys can claim to be a mortal lock in their own state.”

The simultaneous translation I make of that cryptic statement: Kerry isn’t inclined to place all his bets on Florida, and even if he does, he isn’t inclined to pick either Democratic senator from that state, Bob Graham or Bill Nelson.

Kerry and Johnson, who share early ’70s roots in the work-within-the-system wing of the Vietnam anti-war movement, aren’t generally thought of as wild and crazy guys politically. But they have shown a willingness to take bold risks. Johnson’s Mondale campaign picked Rep. Geraldine Ferraro as the running mate — the first woman on a major-party ticket. Kerry bet the ranch when he focused his entire primary-season effort on Iowa. That’s why I didn’t immediately dismiss a rumor circulated recently that the Kerryites had sounded out Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican critic of Bush’s anti-terrorism policies. The Kerry campaign wouldn’t comment. Hagel, through a spokesman, denied that he had been contacted — and said he’d say “no way” if he were. Kerry keeps murmuring nice things about Sen. John McCain, but the Arizona senator — after enjoying a few weeks of teasing — finally said he’d never consider a switch.

Women in the wings
A female pick is no longer a wild idea in America politics, and there are several names on the Great Mentioner’s list — among them Gov. Kathleen Sibelius of Kansas, Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Rep. Jane Harman and Sen. Dianne Feinstein. It’s true that there are many more female than male swing voters — more “waitress moms” than “office park dads” — but support from women is not Kerry’s biggest problem. Closing the male side of the gender gap is.

So the pick is likely to be rather traditional. The most traditional would be Gephardt, a known quantity if there ever was one. Though he fell flat in the primaries, Kerry deeply respects him personally. If Kerry wants someone who won’t be plotting to succeed him, Gephardt is his man. Not so with Edwards, whose own ambitions are palpable. There is no love lost between Kerry and Edwards, but Edwards proved himself as a campaigner and has been out making the case for Kerry — often better, more succinctly than his possible boss. Edwards (and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana) have a procedural advantage: Both were vetted by Al Gore’s campaign in 2000. Gore’s handlers went so far as to interview dozens of jurors in Edwards’ past court cases.

Vilsack of Iowa is described by one Kerry insider as “a more interesting version of Gephardt.” Though Vilsack himself couldn’t, as a sitting governor, endorse a candidate in the primaries, his wife, Christie, was the visible mainstay of Kerry’s winning campaign in Iowa — the win, it turns out, which  sealed the nomination. Geographically and sociologically, Vilsack is a four-fer: He is originally from Western Pennsylvania (Ground Zero in the Bush Electoral College attack plan); he has close ties to organized labor; his political roots are in the Midwest; and, most important, he is a Catholic. Two Catholics on the ticket? Not many years ago, the notion would have seemed ridiculous, if not politically suicidal. But times have changed. For the Democrats — eager to win swing voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere — it may be essential.

Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.