Is There a Republican Dream Ticket?
How daring McCain might be with his pick in running-mate will be influenced tremendously by two key factors. First, he needs to know which Democrat he will be campaigning against. Second he must make what may be the most important strategic decisions he will face: Having mollified some of the party's base by painting himself as a true-blue conservative -- he trots out the "foot-soldier in the Reagan revolution" line in virtually every appearance -- McCain will have to figure out how far back to the center he must tack to broaden his appeal in the general election.
If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, McCain would have a relatively free hand. The Clintons are utterly despised by many conservatives, and her candidacy would do more to unite and mobilize conservatives than anything McCain might do. Because Clinton is such a polarizing figure, McCain could appeal to independents and moderate Democrats by drawing her as an unreconstructed partisan and highlighting his own track-record as a pragmatic lawmaker who tries to build bipartisan consensus. To that end, he might toy with the notion of making his run with colleague and friend Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000 who became an independent in 2006 and has endorsed McCain. With such a ticket, McCain could lay claim to the title as the true agent of change in the race, willing to make a break with a long era of fierce partisanship. (The idea is not unprecedented. John Kerry tried a similar move in 2004, seeking out McCain. McCain ultimately rejected the idea out of party loyalty, but it would be an easier step for the now independent Lieberman.)
McCain's calculations would be far different if he had to tangle with Barack Obama, whose entire campaign is based on healing partisan, ideological and racial divisions. Like McCain, Obama has strong appeal to independents and centrists (The most recent NPR poll shows them splitting the independent vote). He's less threatening to Republicans than Clinton and is causing a stir that could give a rocket boost to Democratic turnout. McCain would likely run a more doctrinaire GOP campaign against Obama, one that shores up the GOP base and works hard to keep the South and Midwest solidly red with traditional themes of low taxes and a strong defense.
In that case, I wouldn't be shocked by a McCain-Huckabee ticket. The party establishment would scream, but Huckabee is the only candidate who has stirred real excitement with evangelical conservatives, whose ability to turn out in large numbers were crucial to George Bush in both 2000 and 2004. Huckabee has proved a congenial and able campaigner with a populist edge that could be extremely attractive in a campaign dominated by economic issues -- a weak point for McCain. He was an effective governor in Arkansas who worked well with Democrats and could help hold the South. McCain appears fond of Huckabee and Huckabee has done McCain a huge favor by staying in the race and stealing votes from arch rival Mitt Romney.
McCain will bide his time, waiting for the Democrats to sort things out and seeking to quietly repair rifts in the party. His list would include several GOP governors or perhaps a Republican woman from the Senate. If he wants a pragmatic moderate, McCain would give a close look to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, an early and eager supporter. If he wanted a traditional conservative who could shore up the South, he'd consider Mississippi's Haley Barbour, a popular ex-chair of the Republican National Committee who could help McCain repair relationships with party chieftains and contributers.