Thursday, May 22, 2008

The presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain says it’s purely coincidental, but three of the guests scheduled to drop by the senator’s Arizona home over the Memorial Day weekend happen to be on the shortlist of vice presidential contenders.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will join the McCains and several other couples this weekend.

None of the three men have previously visited the McCain ranch. Nevertheless, the McCain camp played down the gathering.

“The weekend is entirely social, nothing related to VP process,” senior adviser Mark Salter said.

The possible running mates and their wives all will stay at the McCain compound near Sedona from tomorrow to Sunday, lounging, chatting and dining together.

“There will be grilling,” Mr. Salter said.

In all, 10 couples — “all friends” from Congress, the campaign and the private sector, Mr. Salter said — will descend on the sprawling spread in Cornville, which features several outbuildings and large tracts of manicured lawn, all edged by a creek wide with the runoff of winter snow from the nearby mountains.

Last month, Mr. McCain said his search for a running mate was in the “embryonic stages” — but he did add that he had a list of 20 potential choices.

Mr. Romney, 61, a former GOP presidential candidate, dropped out of the race in February after he lost the South Carolina and Florida primaries to Mr. McCain, who had gained momentum from a surprising win in New Hampshire, the nation’s first primary. He endorsed the Arizona senator a week later and has since paired with the nominee-in-waiting on the campaign trail.

While the two had a fierce primary battle, Mr. McCain has praised Mr. Romney since, saying he expects him to play a large role in party politics. The telegenic Mr. Romney has several times implied he would accept the vice presidential slot, and some political pundits see the pairing as timely, given the former governor’s lengthy economic resume and the flagging U.S. economy.

Still, others say bad blood still exists between the two, prompted by campaign attacks that Mr. McCain saw as exceedingly personal. Mr. McCain portrayed Mr. Romney as a flip-flopper on social issues and weak on national defense, while the former governor cast Mr. McCain as outside of the GOP’s conservative mainstream.

Mr. Crist, 51, also has joined Mr. McCain on the campaign trail several times and is credited with giving the candidate a major boost by endorsing him just before Florida’s Jan. 29 primary. Similar to Mr. McCain, the perennially tanned Mr. Crist is considered a moderate, pushing for new efforts to curb climate change, a key issue for Mr. McCain.

He is popular in Florida, which is expected again to be a swing state, and his youth could be considered an asset given the fact Mr. McCain would be 72 years old on Inauguration Day 2009.

But age might be a drawback for the other McCain guest, Mr. Jindal. At just 36, he is considered a rising star in the Republican Party, but as Mr. McCain targets the 46-year-old Sen. Barack Obama as inexperienced, Mr. Jindal might negate that issue if he is selected.

“He’s way too young — very bright, with an excellent future, but way too young for us,” one McCain adviser said.

Still, Mr. Jindal, who was born in Baton Rouge to parents freshly arrived from the India’s Punjab state, could help counter Mr. Obama’s draw as the first minority on a major-party presidential ticket. He also might help quell dissent among conservatives: A pro-life Roman Catholic, he opposes embryonic stem-cell research and abortion.

Among other guests expected are Sens. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. Another governor often mentioned as a front-runner will not be there this weekend: Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota has a wedding to attend Saturday.

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