VP Watch: Timing speculation and a new name in GOP veepstakes

We are now five days from the Olympics’ opening ceremony, and still no sign from either of the presidential campaigns that they are ready to announce their vice-presidential picks. If they do not announce their running-mate in the next 48 to 72 hours, they will have to wait for the Olympics’ hype to decrease a bit before any announcement.

That would mean that both campaigns would have voluntarily given up a chance to roll out their vice-presidential nominees at a time they would easily grab all the headlines and own the news cycle and both would set themselves up for complicated PR maneuvers if they want to get significant media coverage. The Obama campaign would be forced to announce its pick during the Olympics (the Democratic convention starts soon after the closing ceremony) and the McCain campaign would have to announce either during the Olympics or the day after Obama’s acceptance speech - in both cases forcing them to compete with other major story lines.

Announcing in the next two days could be especially helpful for the Obama campaign. For the first time of the general election campaign, they lost control of their message last week and were on the defensive. Racial issues are now moving to the front of the political conversation - and everyday that happens is a potential disaster for Obama. The vice-presidential pick could allow Democrats to take back control of the campaign narrative, move on from the distractions of the past week (the German troop visit, the celebrity ad, the race card) and own the week leading up to the Olympics.

Yet, the campaign doesn’t seem as ready to make its pick as we assumed last week, when speculation was mounting that both campaigns were reaching the final stages of their decision-making processes and that the Obama campaign had narrowed its list to a few names, including Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. Now, The Washington Post reports that Obama’s vetting process might not be as advanced as we previously thought and that Obama’s much-publicized three hour meetings with his vetting staff was not meant to come to a final decision, and that the list Obama is playing with is longer than thought.

In other words, it is not yet down to Kaine, Evan Bayh, Kathleen Sebelius and Joe Biden - other names are still in the running. If anything, Kaine might have hurt his chances last week by allowing as many leaks as he did. (One name that does not appear to be making it to the final round is Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill. She had already said last week that she was not being vetted by the campaign - and she repeated that again today.)

On the Republican side, the veepstakes have always centered on a shorter list of names though speculation reached feverish pitch last week - though we still haven’t gotten a decision. Often mentioned, Bobby Jindal’s youth has long made him an unlikely pick - how could McCain attack Obama’s inexperience if he deems Jindal to be qualified enough? Now, conservative activists are organizing a push to convince the McCain campaign to make Jindal the keynote speaker at the GOP convention. That this is now the focus of many on the Right confirms that Jindal is no longer in the veepstakes’ top-tier and that floating his name might have been a way for the campaign to win the good will of conservatives. It also confirms that Jindal is a name we will hear again in the coming years and most probably in a future presidential election.

Meanwhile, a new name appeared this week in the Republican veepstakes: Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, the third-in-command in the GOP’s House caucus and a prominent Jewish Republican. Politico reported that Cantor was being vetted and had submitted documents to the McCain campaign. This is the kind of veepstakes news of which it is very difficult to know what to make. Cantor has a very conservative profile, and right-wing blogs like Red State were clearly excited about his inclusion. So is McCain seriously considering picking Cantor, or has his name been leaked to the media in the last stages of the veepstakes to reassure conservatives that their wishes are under consideration and that one of their own made it very far?

This is not just an empty reassurance, after all. Even if someone is not picked after making it to the short list, his national profile is increased to such a degree that he or she is certain to play a prominent role in future election years. That Jindal was played up so much by the McCain campaign is now giving him a shot at the keynote spot and places him as a key player in conservative circles. This speculation could do the same for Cantor. Even if McCain selects a vice-president towards which conservatives are less sympathetic - Charlie Crist, even Tim Pawlenty or Mitt Romney - they could still be grateful that McCain raised the profile of Republicans they like.

This is not to say that Cantor could not be actually selected. In fact, John McCain could be better served choosing a running-mate that was not expected and that could provide some energy to his campaign. Pawlenty and Romney might be great fits for McCain in other presidential years, but this year the Senator is playing catch-up and might be better served picking someone like Cantor, who could energize the base while also giving McCain an opportunity to make some major inroads in the Jewish community - especially now that Florida is back in the toss-up column.

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