Undeterred by McCain Denials, Some See Him as Kerry's No. 2
May 15, 2004
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and JODI WILGOREN
WASHINGTON, May 14 — Despite weeks of steadfast rejections from Senator John McCain, some prominent Democrats are angling for him to run for vice president alongside Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, creating a bipartisan ticket that they say would instantly transform the presidential race.
The enthusiasm of Democrats for Mr. McCain, an Arizona Republican, is so high that even some who have been mentioned as possible Kerry running mates — including Senator Bill Nelson of Florida and Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator — are spinning scenarios about a "unity government," effectively giving Mr. Kerry a green light to reach across the political aisle and extend an offer.
"Senator McCain would not have to leave his party," Mr. Kerrey said. "He could remain a Republican, would be given some authority over selection of cabinet people. The only thing he would have to do is say, `I'm not going to appoint any judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade,' " the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, which Mr. McCain has said he opposes.
Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who once worked for Mr. Kerry, said such a ticket "would be the political equivalent of the Yankees signing A-Rod," referring to Alex Rodriguez, the team's star third baseman.
Mr. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, "continues to be interested in" Mr. McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran whom Kerry aides describe as the candidate's best friend in the Senate, as a running mate, said one longtime Democratic official who works for the Kerry campaign.
But the official said the plan was unrealistic, because Mr. McCain "won't do it." In an interview on Friday, Mr. McCain said, "I have totally ruled it out."
Even so, Democrats say a bipartisan Kerry-McCain ticket, featuring two decorated Vietnam War veterans from different parties and regions of the country, would give them a powerful edge in the debate over who can best lead the nation in the war on terror. "It would be a dream team," Mr. Lehane said.
This kind of open speculation suggests that Democrats are so eager to regain the White House in November that they are willing to overlook members of their own party, and to accept a candidate who disagrees with one of the core tenets of their platform, the right to an abortion. At the same time, the Kerry-McCain talk is testimony to the close friendship between the two, and the cool relationship between Mr. McCain and President Bush. The senator from Arizona is co-chairman of President Bush's re-election campaign there, but it is no secret in Washington that Mr. McCain has not quite forgiven Mr. Bush for the attacks on him during the 2000 Republican presidential primaries.
Mr. Kerry defended Mr. McCain then, and the Arizona senator returned the favor in March, dismissing suggestions by the Bush camp that Mr. Kerry is weak on defense. "If you don't stand by your friends if they are unfairly attacked," Mr. McCain said Friday, "then you've lost your bearings."
The two men talk on the phone periodically, most recently a few days ago. On the campaign trail, Mr. Kerry drops Mr. McCain's name almost daily. On Friday, he invoked Mr. McCain, a former prisoner of war, at a news conference when asked whether he thought pictures of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison should be released to the public.
"I think John McCain really had the right formula, personally," he said, referring to the Arizona senator's suggestion that the pictures would eventually find their way into public view, and should be put out in an organized fashion.
And it was not surprising that the words "our good friend John McCain" were the first thing out of Mr. Kerry's mouth earlier this week, when he was asked to name possible replacements for Donald H. Rumsfeld, President Bush's embattled secretary of defense.
Despite Mr. McCain's protestations that he would not be Mr. Kerry's No. 2, Senator Nelson, of Florida, said he had spoken to both Mr. McCain and Kerry campaign officials about it.
"There's a collective sigh that says, `This feels right,' " Mr. Nelson said Friday, adding, "I think it's very plausible that, with Iraq still in chaos, that if offered to him, he would say it's time for me to go serve my country again in another capacity, where I can do some good."
Such an offer would undoubtedly be controversial among Democrats. Some say Mr. McCain would upstage Mr. Kerry; others regard him as too conservative. Among the latter is Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's campaign in 2000. "McCain has not been pro-choice; he's not been out front on affirmative action," Ms. Brazile said. "He's not been out front on core issues that have defined the Democratic Party."
The list of possible Democratic contenders is a long one and runs the gamut from senators like John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida, to governors like Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Thomas J. Vilsack of Iowa.
For Mr. McCain, 68, joining a Kerry ticket would mean giving up his Senate seat, since he is up for re-election this year. He is also in line to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee when the term of the current chairman, John W. Warner, expires in 2006.
Mr. McCain is also well aware that his power and influence in Washington derives from his candor, a trait he would have to curb as vice president. And despite his strained relationship with the president, his friends say he simply would not challenge Mr. Bush. Asked last week if he thought Mr. Bush should be re-elected, Mr. McCain said yes, "because I think he has led the nation with strength and clarity since Sept. 11."
Rick Davis, who ran Mr. McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, said such public pronouncements were his way of tamping down speculation about him and Senator Kerry.
"His point that he's trying to make publicly is to send Kerry a message to say, `Don't put me in that position,' " Mr. Davis said.
The two senators were not instantly close. When Mr. Kerry first ran for the Senate in 1984, Mr. McCain, then a freshman House member, went to Massachusetts to campaign against him. Mr. McCain, a former Navy pilot who spent more than five years in captivity, had little use for Mr. Kerry, who became a war protester and famously threw away his ribbons.
"I didn't approve of it," Senator McCain said in an interview. "I still don't approve of it."
But the two formed a strong bond in the 1990's as they investigated the politically sensitive question of whether American soldiers remained missing in Southeast Asia. Max Cleland, the former Democratic senator from Georgia who is also a Vietnam veteran, said the relationship between Mr. McCain and Mr. Kerry was "deep and personal."
If Mr. McCain is offered the vice-presidential spot, people close to Mr. Kerry say, the request will come from the candidate himself and not through the campaign's vice-presidential vetting process.
Asked if Senator Kerry had made such an offer, Mr. McCain said no without hesitation. But asked if the two men had ever discussed it, even casually, he paused for a moment.
"No," he said finally. "We really haven't."
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