Sen. Barack Obama campaigned in Indiana last week with a pair of potential vice presidential picks and will travel abroad with a third, the latest round of high-profile appearances coinciding with a search process that could be critical to his chances of winning the White House in November.
Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) and former senator Sam Nunn of Georgia joined the presumptive Democratic nominee at a panel discussion on national security threats at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Obama is expected to head to Iraq and Afghanistan soon with Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), a West Point graduate considered a dark horse to join the Democratic ticket because of his military expertise.
Unlike several high-profile prospects, such as Sen. Jim Webb (Va.), former governor Mark Warner (Va.) and Gov. Ted Strickland (Ohio), all of whom have taken themselves out of the running for the job, both Bayh and Nunn seem interested, although neither would comment on whether he had been contacted by the campaign's vetters. "Certainly I would talk to Senator Obama if he wanted to talk about that," the 69-year-old Nunn told reporters.
Bayh, 52, who had endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary, praised Obama and said the speculation is "good for my ego." Campaign officials said Reed, Bayh and Nunn were asked to appear with Obama because of their foreign policy knowledge, not as part of the vetting process.
Despite their differences in age and geographic base, Nunn, Bayh and Reed all fit well in the experience column among contenders for the No. 2 spot on the ticket -- Washington veterans with deep résumés and credentials in government. But Obama is also considering individuals who are more in his own political mold, fellow outsiders who would reinforce his message of bringing change to Washington.
As they weigh their options, Obama advisers and prominent supporters are divided as to the wiser course. The vice presidential sweepstakes amounts to a cost-benefit analysis intended to determine which running mate would help the most in the largest number of states. While Obama is known as a pragmatic decision maker who trusts his instincts, he has dropped few public hints about his preferences.
Joe Trippi, who managed the presidential campaign of former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) earlier this year, drew comparisons to the way Democratic tickets came together in 1992 and 1968. In the more recent case, Bill Clinton chose a fellow youthful Southerner -- Sen. Al Gore -- in a decision that "amplified his message instead of broadening it," Trippi said.
John F. Kennedy, on the other hand, opted for a rival and his senior, consummate Senate insider Lyndon B. Johnson, a purely strategic choice aimed at expanding the geographic, ideological and generational reach of the ticket.
But like Clinton and Kennedy, Obama has youth and relative inexperience that add to the stakes in his decision, which should provide a window into the candidate's perception of his own strengths and weaknesses, as well as his taste for political risk.
"In every campaign, there are a few decisions that can make a difference in the outcome," said Jill Alper, a Democratic consultant with Dewey Square Group. "And this could be the one that will demonstrate his fitness to be the biggest fish in the biggest pond in the world."
Information on the process has begun to trickle out, as Caroline Kennedy and Eric Holder, who have been designated to screen potential vice presidential picks, request detailed background information from a pool of prospects.
Clinton has not been contacted to turn over her information to the Obama vetters -- despite a vocal group of Clinton supporters pushing for her to be part of a "Dream Ticket" in the fall. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (C0nn.) acknowledged recently that he had been contacted. "There's been some inquiries, yeah," Dodd told the Associated Press. "They ask for a lot of stuff."
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), believed to be high on Obama's list, said in an interview that he had not been contacted by Kennedy or Holder.
In the change column, two top contenders include governors of traditionally Republican states, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia. Both endorsed Obama early on and have found success in regions where the party hopes to expand its reach.
They are also both Irish Catholics, a demographic group with which Obama proved weak during the primary season. And both have intangibles in their favor. Sebelius is an Ohio native and the daughter of former governor and congressman Jack Gilligan. Kaine was a missionary in Latin America, speaks fluent Spanish and shares roots with Obama in the same Kansas town.
Neither Kaine nor Sebelius -- nor Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, or any of the other new wave of Democratic leaders whose names show up on prospect lists -- would alleviate voter concerns about Obama's lack of foreign policy and national security experience. But many close to Obama say that he does not view his brief tenure on the national scene as a deficiency and that he may be more inclined to use the vice presidential pick to underscore that he is a different kind of candidate.
"The best bet by far is youth and vigor," said Matt Bennett, a former Clinton administration official. "This cycle is, in many respects, looking a lot like 1992 -- a young and enormously charismatic change candidate running against an older Republican who promises more of the same, with the economy in the tank and Americans desperate for new leadership and new thinking."
Sources close to the campaign said Obama also is intrigued by several political veterans, including Biden. The senator from Delaware has said emphatically on numerous occasions that he is not interested in the job, but he has many advocates, including powerful Clinton backers who valued his neutrality during the primary, as well as numerous Senate colleagues.
"He should go for experience," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). "In my state, someone like Biden would send a very strong signal. It would add a lot."
Reed will accompany Obama, along with GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), on an upcoming trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. He laughed off rumors that he is being considered.
"I'm not in the mix, and I don't want to be in the mix," Reed said, recounting his family's amusement at hearing his name mentioned in media speculation. Countered one Democrat close to the Obama campaign, "He's in the mix."