by Lowman S. Henry | January 30, 2008

Not anymore, VP selection carries high stakes

Even before John McCain’s win last night in the Florida primary, speculation had begun over who the GOP front-runner might select as his running mate. Here in Pennsylvania the quadrennial guessing game again focuses on former Governor Tom Ridge.

Ridge was considered a front-runner in 2000 when he was an incumbent governor and, more importantly, a close friend of then-Texas Governor George W. Bush. Bush appointed Dick Cheney to head his selection process, and Cheney ended up picking himself.

Ridge was left standing alone at the altar.

As it turned out, history had something bigger in store for Tom Ridge. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th Bush turned to Ridge as his first advisor on homeland security and then tapped Ridge to be the first Secretary of Homeland Security when that post was elevated to cabinet status.

Now, another FOR (Friend of Ridge) appears destined for the Republican Presidential nomination. Would McCain turn to Ridge? There are strong arguments both for and against such a selection.

On the plus side, Ridge remains enormously popular in Pennsylvania. Any Republican Presidential candidate who wins the Keystone state almost certainly will collect the needed electoral votes to be elected President. No doubt Ridge would be a strong plus in the general election and it is not an exaggeration to suggest he could deliver the state – and its 21 electoral votes – to McCain.

What, though, would a Ridge vice presidential selection cost McCain nationwide?

McCain has, at best, rocky relations with the conservative establishment in Washington, D.C. Although one of the most dependable conservative votes in Congress (especially good on earmarks and spending restraint), McCain has strayed from the path on such bellwether issues as immigration and campaign finance. That is just enough to take the luster off of otherwise sterling conservative credentials.

Conservatives as a lot are not pleased with this year’s crop of Republican candidates. Looking for the holy grail of another Ronald Reagan, the field has been found wanting. McCain is an acceptable nominee, but forward looking conservatives are hoping his vice presidential selection will put in place the conservative leader of the future. Such a pick would bring the conservative base of the party into the McCain fold and allow him to engage the ultimate Democratic nominee with a united party behind him.

Tom Ridge would not fit that bill.

In fact, Ridge is anathema to many in the conservative movement. As a Member of Congress he had a propensity for voting against Ronald Reagan’s legislative agenda. And, he is pro-abortion. If McCain puts Ridge on the short list, look for the conservative media to shift into high gear to oppose the selection – just as they did in 2000.

McCain, of course, will have other options. If, for example, he is looking for governor who could help deliver a swing state, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota would help there and in the entire upper mid-west. If he wants a conservative governor, he might turn to South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. And then there are other 2008 Presidential contenders. Mitt Romney is still a viable, although increasingly unlikely, candidate for the nomination, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee would help McCain nail down both the south and the social conservative wing of the party.

History shows us that vice presidential candidates typically have a bigger impact on party unity than in winning general election votes. John F. Kennedy’s pick of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan union with George H.W. Bush are two recent examples of how such pragmatism yielded a general election victory.

It could be even more important this year. That is because the position itself has evolved into a key cog in the national government. Vice President Dick Cheney is perhaps the most influential vice president in the history of the republic. And, not to be crass, but if John McCain is nominated and elected he would be the oldest person ever to take the oath of office. He will hopefully have good health throughout his term, but must be viewed as an unlikely candidate for re-election, thus putting his vice president in a strong position to become the next Republican nominee.

Thus, if McCain become the Republican standard bearer his first major decision could ultimately be one of his most crucial.