By JEFF ZELENY
Patrick Healy contributed reporting from New York
© 2008 New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON – Speculation surrounding Sen. Barack Obama’s vice presidential selection has often been set off by the comings and goings at a law firm on Pennsylvania Avenue here, where leading members of his vetting team are working.
The real vetting, though, is a labor born of shoe leather that has taken Democratic lawyers and researchers to a number of places across the country in a secretive quest to pore over each chapter in the lives of prospective running mates, all in the hunt for anything embarrassing, distracting or otherwise problematic.
One point of inquiry, for instance, is a batch of old legal files in Richmond, Va., where death penalty cases of a young civil rights lawyer named Tim Kaine are being reviewed. Kaine is now the governor of Virginia, but his work from two decades ago is suddenly a subject of at least some of the political detective work being conducted on a handful of Democrats.
Obama, who devoted several hours here Monday and Tuesday to meeting with his vice presidential vetting team, is increasingly turning his focus to selection of a running mate. The detailed vetting of possible choices like Kaine suggests that the effort is well along.
Yet Obama has not conducted formal sit-down interviews with candidates, aides say, and a decision is believed to be weeks away, not days. His aides say there is no particular rush: the campaign seems to be going well for him at the moment, and so he does not need the burst of attention and energy that typically accompanies the announcement of a vice presidential choice.
For all the calculations about who would make a better running mate – a governor or a senator, someone with a military background or business experience, a native of a battleground state or a national name – the list of candidates for Obama is believed to be fairly small. Several aides placed it at fewer than five, though they acknowledged that they were not sure, given the secrecy ordered by Obama.
Even the campaign’s political strategists and nearly all its advisers – people typically knowledgeable about all elements of the race – are excluded from the process involving the vetting team. A rollout to introduce Obama’s ultimate choice is already being charted, but members of the team planning it expect to have no say in the selection, or barely any advance knowledge.
And prospective running mates are not talking.
“My conversations with the campaign stay with the campaign,” Kaine told reporters Tuesday in Washington. “I haven’t sought it. I’m not running for it. I’m not asking for it. I’ve never asked anything of the campaign.”
Until this week, Obama and his campaign had been focusing considerable attention on the overseas trip he just completed, aides said, and so a short list has not been formally compiled. But while he was away, the vetting moved forward, focusing not only on the current positions of the candidates but also on their earlier careers.
Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who also served two terms as governor – at 33, he was the youngest governor in the nation – has a record dating from 1986, when he was elected Indiana’s secretary of state.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas is a former state lawmaker and was also elected state insurance commissioner. Of all those mentioned as candidates, she is perhaps the least well known, and so even her achievements need researching. As commissioner, for example, she won credit for blocking a proposed merger between an out-of-state insurer and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas, a move that some analysts said spared Kansans an increase in insurance rates.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, a senator nearly 36 years, has more of a public record than perhaps any other prospect. That, as well as his own bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, puts the focus of the vetting largely on financial and personal matters.
Each of those mentioned would bring advantages to the ticket. Kaine is Catholic and speaks Spanish, and that could allow him to expand Obama’s appeal to those voters. Bayh could bolster the ticket in Indiana, where Obama believes he can win. Sebelius could help present a thematic arc for Obama, whose maternal grandparents were from Kansas. And Biden has unassailable national security credentials.
They have their drawbacks as well. Pairing Kaine or Sebelius with Obama would produce a ticket with limited experience in foreign affairs. And while Democrats are uncertain that Bayh has the stomach to be an attack dog, they worry whether Biden has the discipline for the scrutiny of a general election campaign.
It is the least well known Democrats who draw the most attention from the vetting team, not least, of course, on policy positions. Kaine, for example, has said he is personally opposed to both the death penalty and abortion, though he has vowed to uphold existing laws.
Then there are the variety of other factors that come into play, from compatibility and camaraderie to loyalty and how the prospective running mates look alongside each other. These are among the few matters presumably left not to the vetting team but to Obama himself.© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.