The Washington Times

Do you need to know who a party’s presidential nominee will be before you can say anything about who its nominee for vice president will be? Yes and no. That’s because far from being an expression of personal choice on the part of the nominee, the considerations involved in selecting a veep tend not to change over time.

In general, there are four main criteria, often overlapping: someone who unites the party’s disparate factions behind the ticket; someone who brings balance to the ticket, typically but not necessarily regional balance; someone who offers an immediate electoral payoff in terms of an increased chance of victory in a swing state or special appeal to a broad-based bloc of voters; someone who will be seen as a plausible successor, not so much in the sense of ascending to the Oval Office because of a premature vacancy but in terms of the ability to use the vice presidency to prepare a run for the presidency.   We looked at the early Democratic returns last week. What about the Republican?     

The essential fact of the campaign so far is that the two Republicans polling best at present are both outliers with respect to the party’s activist, conservative base. They are John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Mr. McCain is a maverick with a long record as a thorn in the side of those who consider themselves “movement” conservatives on issues ranging from campaign finance reform to immigration. During his 2000 bid to derail George W. Bush’s nomination, he also made comments that antagonized evangelical Christians. Mr. Giuliani, for his part, is pro-choice, which is perhaps enough said given the importance of the pro-life position in the Republican Party.    

Does that mean the party base will be unwilling to line up behind either of the two? Not necessarily. Here, the veepstakes may be crucial.     

Neither of the two would make a good running mate for the other. Rather, in either case, the nominee will likely be looking to someone who has attracted the affection and loyalty of the Republican Party’s conservative base. Moreover, it will not be enough to bring in some gray-beard whose job is liaison and reassurance: The real point will be someone whom conservatives regard as a plausible future presidential candidate. So in the GOP this time around, it looks like unity and succession stand as higher priorities than ticket balance and short-term electoral payoff, at least if either of the two top contenders comes in.     

Who might fill the bill? One of the most intriguing possibilities at this point is that Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas will get into the race, in effect running for vice president. He’s got the conservative bona fides and an activist streak on such issues as halting genocide in Darfur and human rights more broadly. If conservatives demonstrate support and enthusiasm for him during the primaries, he might well be the one.     

Another interesting possibility is Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He, too, has shown early appeal among conservatives. In his case, however, there is a major roadblock en route to the top of the GOP ticket, namely, the question of whether Americans are ready for a Mormon to be president. Because the country as a whole is a lot more sensitive on these issues than it used to be, the reservation will be expressed as I just put it, namely, not about Mr. Romney’s religion but about what people think about Mr. Romney’s religion.     

But that, in turn, provides an opportunity: With Mr. Romney in the No. 2 slot, the “Mormon issue,” such as it is, would play itself out nationally but without the stress of the top slot aggravating the question. It is especially true of Mr. Romney that he would be more plausible as a presidential candidate with a national run for veep behind him.     

Then we get to the more exotic possibilities: OK, so Jeb Bush has ruled out running for president in 2008. That’s for the sole reason that his brother is president; otherwise he’d be a top contender. But does that mean he would refuse the No. 2 slot on the ticket if offered? He’s not only a party uniter and a potential president himself, he’s a huge asset in Florida. And oddly enough, running for vice president could seem not so much an exercise in dynastic politics as humility: no entitlement to step in at the top.     

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as veep offers history-making possibilities. She’s never run for elected office, and that’s ordinarily a must, but she is no ordinary figure. What would happen with the African American vote in this scenario?     

Suppose, though, our Republican nominee is such a maverick that he decides to throw out all the usual criteria in favor of a choice both unprecedented and spectacular. Let me put the possibility in the form of an answer on “Jeopardy!“, circa 2106, a hundred years from now.    

“The Vice Presidency” for $2,000: The only candidate to run for vice president on the ticket of both major political parties.     

Bzzz. Who is Joe Lieberman?