Go for new and exciting, or tried and tested? Ideological purity or prime political real estate?
The clock is ticking for Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama to pick their running mates, and by most accounts Obama has a broader pool of candidates to choose from.
"McCain needs to pick someone who is vibrant and brings a lot of energy to the ticket,'' said Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer, who naturally thinks Gov. Charlie Crist would be ideal. "And I think it would be in his best interest to pick soon, rather than wait. He needs to generate some significant media attention."
Obama generates plenty of excitement on his own and with the political wind at his back after this week's overseas trip, he would benefit from a veteran politician that bolsters his lack of foreign policy experience. That would point to a seasoned, well-vetted contender like Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana or Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
"The threshold for Obama's V.P. choice is simply do no harm. McCain on the other hand will be looking to send several signals with his choice,'' said Republican consultant Todd Harris. "He may decide that he needs someone that will energize the conservative base. He will most certainly want to choose someone who would be viewed as a leader in the next generation of Republicans, and he'll probably want someone who stands a good chance of bringing some political real estate with him."
Checking all those boxes is no easy task. Crist, 52, is a fresh face for the GOP and popular in all-important Florida, but draws skepticism from conservatives.
Many conservatives point to dark-horse contenders like Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal as exciting new faces for the GOP. But neither has been through the meat grinder a national campaign promises. And if McCain picks Jindal, 37, it could undercut the argument that Obama is too green to be commander in chief.
The safest McCain pick could be former primary rival Mitt Romney, who is liked by much of the conservative Republican establishment, brings strong credentials on the economy and has roots in the critical battleground of Michigan.
"The question McCain has to answer is does he try to solidify his base or does he become a Bull Moose type candidate, where he truly just tries to broaden the center and reach out to more voters,'' said veteran Democratic fundraiser Mitchell Berger, who sees McCain's strongest pick as former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge.
Vice presidential picks offer candidates a rare opportunity to dramatically shake up the race, but timing is tricky this year.
The Summer Olympics in Beijing start Aug. 8 and run straight up to the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 25. Neither candidate wants the big announcement lost amid Olympics hoopla, so Obama is widely expected to make his announcement over the next 10 days.
Republicans are divided over whether McCain should make his pick soon or wait until just after the Democratic convention to help tamp down any boost Obama might receive from all that national attention.
"McCain needs to wait and see Obama's hand first,'' said Republican consultant Jamie Miller. "Is Obama going to play defense or is he going to play offense and pick someone like Bill Nelson or Bob Graham, because that could affect McCain's choice."
Graham, a veteran of vice presidential sweepstakes, skirted the question of whether the Obama campaign might be vetting him: "I have not talked to the campaign,'' is all he would say.
The former Florida senator and governor said the first two criteria have to be whether someone is ready to be commander in chief and then whether the nominee and running mate have good chemistry.
After that, electoral considerations come into play, such as whether that person can build on the overall theme of the campaign (as Al Gore did for Bill Clinton); minimize any potential resume shortcoming (as Dick Cheney did for George W. Bush), or help in a key state (as Lyndon Johnson did for John Kennedy).
Once Obama finds potential running mates he's comfortable with, Graham said, "He's got to decide do I want to select a vice presidential candidate who is likely to add electoral votes, is likely to help me carry a state I won't carry on my own, or do I want a vice presidential candidate who will reinforce my candidacy."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8241.