TALLAHASSEE — When Sen. John McCain secured the Republican presidential nomination, Gov. Charlie Crist instantly became a leading contender to join the ticket.
With the vice presidential selection nearly at hand, Crist refuses to talk about "the process." The question now is whether he already has become an also-ran or is being subjected to the kind of microscopic background check performed on the most viable contenders.
The vetting of vice presidential contenders is an extremely secretive process, in part to spare embarrassment for those who aren't chosen. McCain's campaign refuses to say anything about who's being considered or how they are examining their backgrounds. The search is headed by a Washington lawyer, Arthur Culvahouse Jr.
Political consultants say common vetting practices include scouring public records. Some of the offices that house the records of Crist's long life in public service, such as the state Senate, the attorney general and the Commission on Ethics, report no written requests for documents.
Many of those records can be obtained elsewhere, however, and McCain's campaign could have asked Crist directly for material it considers relevant. Crist's closest confidant, his father, Dr. Charles Crist of St. Petersburg, wouldn't say if he knew of any checks into his son's background.
"I can't comment on that," he said. "I know that he (McCain) hasn't asked Charlie and I know he's not campaigning for it."
Another common source of information, consultants say, is information gathered by previous opponents. Crist ran for the U.S. Senate in 1998, education commissioner in 2000, attorney general in 2002 and governor in 2006. So far, the records compiled during those races seem not to have been tapped.
"No one's called me, and I would have expected I would be called,'' said Steve Andrews, a Tallahassee lawyer who was hired to dig into Crist's background by a group supporting his opponent in the 2006 governor's race.
A Virginia firm specializing in opposition research that was hired by Crist's opponent in 2006 does not appear on McCain's campaign reports as a consultant. The Jackson Alvarez Group of Falls Church, Va., was paid by Tom Gallagher, Crist's opponent in the Republican primary in 2006. Owner Gary Maloney could not be reached for comment.
Crist has slipped from the top of media lists in recent weeks. At the same time, in a subtle but revealing shift, Crist now veers away from showing any interest in McCain's ticket and pledges love for his current job. For most of this summer, Crist did little to tamp down the speculation surrounding his name.
Asked Wednesday about his veep prospects, Crist said: "I have no idea. I'm just so pleased to be the governor of Florida."
On Fox's Hannity & Colmes show Monday, Crist said: "I can't discuss the process. I'm enjoying being governor of Florida." When questions persisted, Crist said: "I'd rather not get into that."
George LeMieux, a former chief of staff for Crist who remains close to the governor, said: "If I knew, I couldn't tell you." Asked if he had been contacted by McCain's vetting team, LeMieux repeated the same answer.
Crist could be having it both ways: enjoying the exposure that goes with being on McCain's short list without the stress of an intrusive inquiry into his personal and financial life.
"You're looking at a very, very deep probe of their financial life, political life and personal life," said Rick Wilson, a Republican campaign strategist in Florida and other states. "The personal financials are intense."
In Crist's most recent races, he faced questions about twice failing the Bar exam, having never owned a home, his sexual orientation (stemming from his longtime bachelorhood) and whether he fathered a child out of wedlock. He won both elections convincingly.
Political questions linger, too, such as whether the conservative GOP base would favor a centrist like Crist who emphasizes climate change and favors civil rights for those convicted of felonies.
Crist's backing of McCain in the Jan. 29 Florida primary all but sewed up the nomination for the Arizona senator, and McCain needs Crist's wholehearted support as he chases Florida's 27 electoral votes this fall.
The speculation surrounding Crist will swirl again today as the governor joins McCain at campaign appearances in Orlando and Panama City.
Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.