Running mate rumors keep McCain campaign in limelight

By Tom Raum

ROCHESTER, N.H. – Yet another town-hall meeting isn’t doing the trick. Neither is dropping in on a former Republican president. So just what can John McCain do to draw attention away from his showy Democratic rival?

Pick a running mate, perhaps.

Speculation swirled Tuesday that McCain might name his vice presidential partner within the next few days – right in the middle of Barack Obama’s overseas tour.

McCain aides were not helping tamp down the speculation with their comments, often made late in the afternoon, of “no announcement today.”

But what about tomorrow? Or where? On Tuesday, McCain campaigned in New Hampshire, not all that far from a lakeside summer home of vanquished GOP rival Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor. Romney was nowhere to be seen. Well, it wasn’t really that close to his lakeside home.

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One member of the audience told McCain he seemed like a very “forgiving” man. “Have you forgiven Mitt Romney?” he asked the senator.

Amid laughter, McCain said, “Mitt has been of tremendous help to my campaign. … He does a better job for me than he did for himself.”

Later, when reporters asked if this was a good week to announce his own running mate with Obama overseas, McCain chuckled and said, “We have the same answer we always have. … We’ll let you know when we have an announcement.”

Last Sunday, McCain was in the Bronx at a Yankees game with another former rival, one-time New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. “You hear all kinds of stuff,” Giuliani later said, “but I’m not thinking about anything but helping to get him elected.”

The campaign is also not very open about where McCain is going next, keeping scheduling matters close to the vest. And that adds to the frenzy.

All questions about the process of selecting a running mate are quickly shot down.

“It’s the one subject we’ve been forbidden to talk about,” said senior adviser Mark Salter. He promised to come to the press area of McCain’s plane, “but I won’t tell you anything.” That is, unless it’s “what’s wrong with Barack Obama’s judgment,” Salter joked. Actually, he wasn’t joking.

When reporters caught a glimpse of McCain and rushed forward on the plane, he grinned and waved them away. “What do you want, you little jerks?” he asked.

There are a lot of potential running mates that McCain could visit as he jets around the country – Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist or Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, for instance, three governors mentioned frequently as possible running mates. McCain ends up in New Orleans on Wednesday evening.

McCain returned to New Hampshire, a state where he his fared well in two presidential primaries (2000 and 2008). Obama and McCain are neck-and-neck in this swing state, and only half of likely voters said they have definitely decided on their choice for president.

A University of New Hampshire poll showed Obama with 46 percent and McCain with 43 percent, a statistical tie given the poll’s margin of error of 3 percentage points. “This will be one of those states who decides who the next president of the United States will be,” McCain said.

Even former President George H.W. Bush was asked by reporters for his views on McCain’s vice presidential search when the Arizona senator visited the elder Bush at his family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush said he wasn’t in the politics business any more.

But what about Romney, once governor of neighboring Massachusetts? Bush didn’t jump to the bait. But what do you think of him as a person? “I like him,” said the former president.

And that was it.

McCain on Tuesday participated in a town-hall meeting in this central New Hampshire village. Half a world away, reporters were trailing Obama as he visited Jordan Israel.

McCain has told reporters he doesn’t care if Obama’s trip was stealing attention and thinks it “doesn’t in the slightest” undercut his own message. But on Tuesday the campaign released two videos set to love songs and encouraged viewers to choose which one best conveyed this message: “The media is in love with Barack.”

Meanwhile, McCain told his audience, “I know you know there’s been a lot of back and forth” on the issue of Iraq. He said when he was campaigning in New Hampshire a year ago, “when everybody declared my candidacy dead … I said we’ve go to do the ‘surge’ … and we will win the war in Iraq. And we are winning that war.”

“If he had his way, we would have been out last March,” McCain said. “We would have never succeeded and we would have had defeat. … He was wrong then, he is wrong now.”

McCain renewed a proposal to have town-hall meetings with Obama in the coming days, a suggestion that has so far been turned down by Obama’s team.