Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's trifecta Tuesday night has placed the fall presidential campaign, in Winston Churchill's words, "at the end of the beginning." Both Romney and President Barack Obama have now shifted into full general-election campaign mode.
Tuesday's outcomes in Wisconsin, Maryland, and the District of Columbia put at center stage Obama's and Romney's prospective vice-presidential running mates this fall.
Vice President Joe Biden appears secure as Obama's No. 2. But there is little security in the job. President Franklin Roosevelt won four presidential elections with three different running mates. President Dwight Eisenhower considered dropping Vice President Richard Nixon in his 1956 second-term campaign. President John F. Kennedy, before his death, was considering the same move regarding Vice President Lyndon Johnson in his looming 1964 re-election campaign.
Polling, before vice-presidential candidates' selections, invariably shows that presidential candidates run more strongly alone than they do with any running mate. But, since running mates must be chosen, they are selected to a) do the least damage possible to No. 1; b) help unify the party after divisive nominating contests; or c) bring regional or ideological balance to the ticket. The nominee for No. 2 should, theoretically, be a person fully qualified in his or her own right for the presidency. But that sometimes is forgotten in the rush to satisfy the other three criteria.
Vice-presidential candidates can make a difference between winning and losing. The most notable modern example was in Johnson's selection as No. 2 by Kennedy in 1960. JFK and LBJ were not friends. JFK's campaign manager, Robert Kennedy, and LBJ actively disliked each other. John Kennedy offered the vice-presidential nomination to Johnson, half expecting him to reject it and opt to remain as Senate Majority Leader. When Johnson did accept, Robert Kennedy attempted to reverse the decision, offering the vice-presidential nomination to Sen. Hubert Humphrey, the national liberal leader who was on good terms with the Kennedys. When Humphrey declined, the Kennedy-Johnson ticket was sealed. As it turned out, Johnson won the election for Kennedy by carrying Texas. Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter's 1976 selection of Sen. Walter Mondale as his running mate not only helped him win a close general-election but provided him with an experienced vice president who balanced his own inexperience in office.
There have been several examples on the negative side. Sen. George McGovern's one-sided 1972 loss to Nixon was sealed by his selection, then dropping, of Sen. Tom Eagleton as his running mate. Vice President Mondale was hurt in 1984 by his running-mate choice of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, whose husband turned out to have mob ties.
The selections of Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, Sen. Dan Quayle, and Dick Cheney, respectively, by Nixon, George Bush the Elder, and Bush the Younger demonstrated bad judgments by the presidential nominees. Agnew was forced to resign from the vice presidency because of corruption. Quayle was badly over his head in the office. Cheney teamed with his pal, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, to convince George W. Bush to wage an ill-advised war in Iraq. Agnew and Quayle, in particular, were selected because they were nonentities who brought neither political help nor harm to the men who chose them.
The most recent bad running-mate decision, of course, was Sen. John McCain's 2008 choice of a totally unprepared Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin over Sen. Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, and then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Neither Obama nor Romney is likely to stumble in choosing a No. 2 for this fall.
Obama's logical 2008 choice for No. 2 would have been his principal competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. But, for a variety of reasons, he and she decided that she was better suited to be Secretary of State. (Obama, it should be noted, also was anxious to see his rival Hillary leave the Senate, where she would have had an independent political base from which to challenge him). Biden had been chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He also filled a political gap for Obama as a candidate with blue-collar, Middle-Atlantic-state origins who could appeal to so-called Reagan Democrats not drawn to Obama's more elitist politics (or, frankly, his race).
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