Sen. John McCain knows what it’s like to be a potential vice-presidential nominee, having been on the list a time or two himself and having stepped on one, too.
“McCain has doubts on Quayle,” read the headline of an Arizona Republic article that ran the day after the 1988 convention ended, quoting Mr. McCain calling George H.W. Bush’s pick “a mistake” after questions were raised about Dan Quayle’s Vietnam War-era service in the National Guard.
Eight years later, Mr. McCain had learned his lesson. As one of those on Bob Dole’s list in 1996, he was a team player when Mr. Dole instead chose Jack Kemp. Mr. McCain called Mr. Kemp a first-class running mate who would bring enthusiasm to the Republican ticket.
Mr. McCain’s experiences in 1988 and 1996, his flirtation with the vice president’s role in 2000 and even his handling of 2004 may offer clues to what the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is seeking in his own running mate and how he will go about choosing.
“He is better off having gone through the process, mostly because he understands how it works,” said Scott Reed, who managed Mr. Dole’s campaign and was the one who called Mr. McCain in 1996 to tell him Mr. Dole had chosen someone else.
“The first lesson is that he wants it to be done in a dignified manner, meaning nobody gets embarrassed, nobody gets a bunch of documents leaked,” Mr. Reed said.
To that end, Mr. McCain has been tight-lipped about his selection process. Names rise and fall among pundits, but there’s little indication anyone has a good idea about what is happening on the inside the campaign. Arthur Culvahouse, the man heading Mr. McCain’s selection committee, has stayed out of the limelight.
Mr. McCain has stoked the fires a bit, though.
He invited Govs. Charlie Crist of Florida and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts to his Arizona vacation home for Memorial Day. He has used former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia as surrogates, and has prominently campaigned with others who have been mentioned, such as former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.
All Mr. McCain has said is the standard disclaimer that his running mate will have to be ready.
Joel K. Goldstein, a professor at St. Louis University School of Law who studies the vice presidency, said each presidential candidate looks for something different.
In 1998, Mr. Bush, after eight years as second fiddle to President Reagan, was looking for loyalty. In 1996, Mr. Dole was looking for dynamism, and in 2000, the word “gravitas” defined George W. Bush’s search criteria. On the Democratic side, Sen. John Kerry was attempting a dream unity ticket by selecting Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina in 2004, while Al Gore was looking for an outside-the-box Democrat in 2000.
Mr. Goldstein called the process “idiosyncratic” and said the running mate needs to pass only two major tests: “One is, you’ve got to be presidential, and second is you have to be sure there’s something that’s not going to be embarrassing to the point you can’t handle it.”
That was part of the problem in 1988, when Mr. Quayle was hit with questions about his admission into the National Guard.
As the Republican National Convention closed that year, Mr. McCain turned critical.