Sen. John McCain's growing popularity among women is fueling speculation that he will select a female running mate, ripening talk about conservative favorite Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, and former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina, one of his top economic advisers.
Political pundits, election strategists and even some Democrats say putting a dynamic woman on the Republican ballot would tip independents, especially the "security moms" who helped President Bush win re-election in 2004.
"If McCain picked a woman, it would certainly get the attention and perhaps votes of some Democrats and a number of independents who supported Hillary Clinton," said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh.
With Mr. McCain not a favorite of social and fiscal conservatives, prominent leaders of the party's right flank say choosing a bona fide member of their class could re-energize the Republican base.
"Sarah Palin is a great choice," said Grover Norquist, a Republican activist best known for his economic conservatism.
"She's got it all, and is a remarkable leader who brings a number of good qualities to the table," said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America.
Although Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are still considered the front-runners for the vice-presidential slot (with a growing hum about former Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio), there is a new buzz that Mr. McCain will make a "transformative" pick outside the mainstream, perhaps even cross party lines to choose Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent.
While most insiders find that option unlikely, Newt Gingrich warns Mr. McCain not to pick "one more relatively boring normal mainstream Republican white guy."
"This fall, there's going to be a lot of energy surrounding the Obama campaign and we need to find ways to generate a substantial amount of energy around the McCain campaign, and an effective, dynamic different kind of vice-presidential nominee, I think, would make a difference," the former House speaker said.
Mrs. Palin is "a mother of five, is a genuine Alaskan, is a hunter, is a dog sledder, is very much for drilling for oil, has a great reform reputation, took on big oil on behalf of the people of Alaska," Mr. Gingrich said. "I think she would bring a level of excitement and uniqueness that people would have to stop and say, 'Boy, this is kind of intriguing.'"
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama has been wowing audiences worldwide, and during the primaries his soaring rhetoric prompted reports of women swooning at his rallies. Mr. Obama enjoys massive support from women younger than 40, leading the Republican candidate by 13 points, according to the latest Fox News survey.
But Mr. McCain leads among women in their 40s by four percentage points and among women 50 and older by three points. While the Arizona Republican's margins are slim, Democratic presidential candidates have traditionally led in those categories by 15 points or more, said former Clinton adviser Dick Morris.
"Long regarded as a maverick Republican, he attracts these swing voters and is ideally positioned to exploit the estrangement between older women and Barack Obama," Mr. Morris wrote in a column on Wednesday.
There are 18 million women across the country who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. Shortly before she dropped out of the Democratic race in June, nearly 30 percent of her supporters said they would shift to Mr. McCain before they would vote for the first-term senator from Illinois.
Women made up 54 percent of the electorate in 2004, when "security moms" turned out in droves to support Mr. Bush.
Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, recognize the importance of the female vote in November, and both are making efforts to shore up their support.
Despite their hefty weight this election, some Republicans are skeptical that Mr. McCain's will name a woman if it is seen as having been motivated purely by poll numbers. They wonder whether voters would see such a vice-presidential decision as act of shallow opportunism, whether or not the woman chosen managed to satisfy the sometimes mutually exclusive interests of interest groups - economic, religious and national defense - that Mr. McCain needs to win.
These Republicans pointed out that the reason women apparently lean toward Mr. McCain has nothing to do with the sex of his running mate.
"Yes, the gap for Obama among women over 40 is real," said Randy Brinson, a Montgomery, Ala., physician, evangelical leader and founder of the national Redeem the Vote movement. "Obama validates all the security concerns of women by his radical agenda, his inexperience, his redistribution-of-wealth ideas and the view that America is subservient in status in regard to Europe, which Obama embraces."
Nevertheless, there is growing buzz around Mrs. Palin, the first female governor of Alaska and youngest ever at 44. In April, she had her fifth child, Trig, who has been diagnosed with Down syndrome. Her other colorfully named children are Bristol, Willow, Piper and Track, who at age 18 joined the Army last Sept. 11.
Once a beauty queen in her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, she has earned a reputation for toughness, eating moose burgers (she's a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association and her Web site shows her holding the antlers of a downed moose), riding snowmobiles and fishing. A former point guard for her high school basketball team, she is a regular churchgoer, staunchly pro-life and, like Mr. McCain, thinks climate change poses a threat.
She is the focus of a Web site (palinforvp.blogspot.com) and elicits oohs and ahhs from leading evangelicals, who are cool to Mr. Romney.
"Palin is an easy sell, particularly because of the recent birth," David Barton, named by Time magazine as one of America's most influential evangelicals, told The Washington Times.
Another potential running mate for Mr. McCain is Mrs. Fiorina, which Forbes magazine dubbed the most powerful woman in business but who was forced out of HP in 2005 after a power struggle with the corporation's board and amid rampant dissatisfaction among shareholders. At 53, she has no experience in political office, but that didn't stop Mr. McCain from making her one of his top surrogates, naming her to the post of chairman of fundraising for get-out-the-vote efforts.
She has made a major misstep, suggesting that insurers are sexually biased because they cover sexual medication for men and not birth control pills (making for an awkward moment when Mr. McCain was asked if he believes the same thing).
But she stood her ground and was recently dispatched to woo supporters of Mrs. Clinton to vote for Mr. McCain. Democrats are worried that she may persuade disgruntled Clinton backers to support the Republican candidate, and some have quietly pushed stories highlighting her $42 million severance package when she left HP and her move to cut 18,000 jobs as she moved work overseas.
Mrs. Marsh said picking Mrs. Fiorina would spotlight her high salary as an executive and her defense of sending jobs overseas.
"That is why if McCain picked a woman, it would be potentially more advantageous to select an elected official like Palin who understands politics, campaigns, government and has a public record rather than having to defend the business record of Fiorina," Mrs. Marsh said.
Other female candidates have fallen by the wayside: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has repeatedly said she does not want the vice-presidential job and is too closely tied to the Bush administration, from which Mr. McCain is trying to distance himself. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, mentioned often several months ago, would put two senators on the Republican ticket, which many pundits say spells certain defeat.