The buzz is building. The four-year wait is almost over. The network TV coverage is about to begin.
No, not the Summer Olympics. I'm talking about the national political conventions, which have been stripped of most of their relevance and news value but remain compelling theater for true political junkies.
This time around, Barack Obama and John McCain are threatening to suck the last bit of drama out of their parties' quadrennial confabs by naming their vice presidential selections ahead of time. That doesn't usually happen; in some years, the running mate choice has kept convention-goers guessing right up until the moment of nomination, on the convention's second night.
But with McCain and Obama jockeying for whatever advantage they can get - and with the convention schedule compressed this year, and competing with the Olympics for attention - one or both of the candidates may seek an early August boost by ending the suspense and picking a running mate early.
We already vetted McCain's potential choices a while back, although you can add late-breaking rising star Eric Cantor, a Jewish, conservative Congressman from Virginia, to McCain's short list. Now it's time to break down Obama's possible veeps:
THE VIRGINIANS: Barack Obama is no dummy. He's studied the electoral map and he sees an awful lot of red in between the blue coasts. He knows that this election is all about him - he has said as much - and that unless he pulls a Thomas Eagleton or Dan Quayle out of his hat, his vice presidential choice is not likely to make a huge difference. So he'd like to find someone who can help him put a little blue in the heartland, whether it's Virginia, Indiana or Colorado. He knows that if he can just move one or two states into the Democratic column, he can win the White House. And that's why he's looking so hard at Virginia, a solidly Republican state in recent history, that is becoming more and more Democratic. It's elected two consecutive Democratic governors, and one U.S. Senator, and may elect a second Democrat to the Senate this November. And all of those Democrats have been considered by the Obama camp for the vice presidency.
One of them, former governor Mark Warner, is not a serious contender, since he's running for a Senate seat that the Democrats need to capture. Another, freshman Senator Jim Webb, seems to have taken himself out of the running, and, despite his experience as Navy Secretary for Ronald Reagan, probably isn't seasoned enough politically for Obama. That leaves Governor Tim Kaine, who may well be the frontrunner now. Kaine was Mayor of Richmond, was elected Lieutenant Governor, and then succeeded Warner as governor. He's only 50, has no military and little foreign affairs experience, and doesn't really bring the gray-haired gravitas many observers think Obama needs on the ticket. But he and Obama are said to be simpatico, and like Obama, he's a Harvard lawyer with Midwestern roots, who has lived abroad. His selection could give the Democrats a ticket like the 1992 team of Clinton and Gore - two smart, next generation, up-and-comers who appeal to young voters and independents. Kaine has some pluses - born in Minnesota, raised in Missouri, went to Harvard Law School, is fluent in Spanish - and some minuses: he's Catholic and has a fairly short government resume. Plus, the Republicans could knock an Obama-Kaine ticket as a couple of brash Ivy Leaguers. But the more you look at Kaine's background, the more he clicks as a potential partner for Obama.
BAYH-PARTISAN: Somewhere in my campaign button collection, I have some old Birch Bayh for President pins from 1976. One of them reads "I'm Bayh Partisan." Barack Obama may be, too - because he is strongly considering Birch's son Evan for the vice presidency. Evan Bayh (he's actually Birch Evan Bayh the third) almost ran for president himself this year, but bowed out at the last minute. He's a former Governor of Indiana who is now in his second term in the U.S. Senate. He's a Clintonesque (Bill, not Hillary) centrist, who would be a safe, maybe even boring, pick. But if Obama wants to play it by the book, Bayh could be his man.
THE VANQUISHED RIVALS: Hillary Clinton? Since she represents New York, I'll sum up her vice presidential prospects this way: fuhgedaboutit. Ain't gonna happen. Bill Richardson? He makes a lot of sense on paper - Latino, seasoned, excellent foreign policy experience, from a swing state - but as Richardson proved in the primaries, campaigns aren't run on paper. He ran a terrible, clumsy campaign, so there's little reason to think he'd be any more effective as Obama's running mate. John Edwards? Been there, done that. That leaves Chris Dodd and Joe Biden - and word has it they're both on Obama's list. Dodd would make a great vice president; he comes across like your favorite uncle, a sweet, genuinely caring man. He's got loads of experience, gray hair, young children and is fluent in Spanish. But he also represents Connecticut, and it's hard to see how that helps Obama get elected president, and I don't think he'd be comfortable in the role of vice presidential attack dog.
Biden would love to be vice president - let's face it, Biden would love to be ANYTHING if it means attention and an invitation to speak - but he wouldn't add much to the ticket. Delaware is a tiny state that is safely in the Democrats' column, and despite Biden's 30 years-plus of foreign policy expertise, he wouldn't move voters in the South or the Mountain states. I see him more as a potential Secretary of State for Obama, but sources insist he's under serious consideration as another "safe" alternative to Kaine, and has made the short list.
DARK HORSES AND WILD CARDS: This list could go on a long time, but I'm in danger of becoming a Joe Biden speech, so we'll try to keep it brief. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is pushing nine-term Texas Congressman Chet Edwards, but that's because she wants a House member to get some consideration. There's no reason to think he's on Obama's list. Obama has examined some generals, including Wesley Clark and James Jones, but all indications are he's moved back toward choosing a conventional politician. Obama is said to like Kansas Governor Kathleen Sibelius, who has raised her profile in recent years and could run for president herself someday. She is 60 years old, in her second term, and has proven adept at attracting crossover voters. If Obama decides he wants a woman - one not named Hillary Clinton - Sibelius could be the choice, but that could also alienate Clinton supporters who will see the selection of any other woman as an affront. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano has also been mentioned, but choosing her would give the governorship there to the Republicans, and Napolitano has said that no one from the Obama camp has contacted her yet, so she seems out of the running. There was some early talk about Sam Nunn - isn't there always? - but that's faded now, as has speculation about Missouri's freshman Senator, Claire McCaskill.
There are also a few governors said to have been considered, but at this point, if the vetters haven't asked for financial records and the like, they're probably out of the running, because Obama only has three weeks left to make his decision. Those governors include Ohio's Ted Strickland (an early and avid Hillary supporter, which makes his selection unlikely), Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell (Jewish and given to speaking bluntly and honestly, which makes him a long shot) and Colorado's Bill Ritter, mainly because he governs a state Obama wants to snatch from the GOP.
So where does that leave us? I will go boldly out onto a limb that someone can saw off later this month, when I'm proven completely wrong. I claim no track record for predicting running mates, but here goes: Even though I'm intrigued by the Eric Cantor candidacy for McCain's veep slot - attracting Jewish voters who are nervous about Obama could help McCain win Florida, Pennsylvania or New Jersey - I think McCain will go with Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty. And I think Obama's whittled his list down to Kaine and Bayh. "Obama-Kaine" does sound like some sort of numbing agent, but "Obama-Bayh" would present some intriguing song possibilities. And besides, "Obama-Biden" sounds too much like "Osama bin Laden."
Feel free to post your own suggestions below. And check back in three weeks to tell me how wrong I was...