Explanations were abounding Thursday on why Sen. John McCain mentioned Tom Ridge as a possible running mate - including a serious pick, a trial balloon for the right and an ecumenical gesture for the left.
Mr. Ridge, who was Pennsylvania’s governor and had strong ties to President Bush before serving as the first homeland security secretary, is liked by some but by no means all in Mr. McCain’s party.
“I actually think Ridge is a realistic candidate,” said Hoover Institution politics scholar David Davenport. “The problem is there are so many different ways for McCain to go in picking a running mate, depending on which problem he is trying to solve.”
Mr. Davenport, the former president of Pepperdine University, said Mr. Ridge is an ideal choice if the McCain team wants someone with experience whom voters can envision as president, given Mr. McCain’s age.
Like the earlier talk of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s name as a possible McCain running mate, Mr. McCain’s telling the Weekly Standard on Wednesday that Mr. Ridge would make a good choice could have been simply to test the waters and see how conservatives, especially social and religious conservatives, would take a pro-choice vice-presidential pick.
Some analysts dismissed that explanation, saying the McCain organization has several experienced operatives who are themselves evangelicals or Catholics and strongly pro-life, and so it already knew what the reaction would be. But if it was a trial balloon, Team McCain got the answer loud and clear Thursday: Responses from leading political evangelicals ranged from outrage to thundering outrage.
“If Tom Ridge is on the ticket, I will not be voting Republican,” Home School Legal Defense Association President Mike Farris said told The Washington Times. He thought for a moment, then added: “I won’t be voting Democratic either.”
The widely influential founder and chairman of the American Family Association Chairman, Donald P. Wildmon, said a Ridge pick would be a “disaster for Republicans.”
Concerned Women for America Chairman Beverly LaHaye said “many will walk” away from the Republican ticket if it includes a pro-choice vice president.
Iowa Christian Alliance President Steve Scheffler said it “would greatly diminish McCain’s potential to win, since 26 percent of those who voted in 2004 were self-identified evangelicals and pro-life Catholics. Close to 80 percent of this group voted for George Bush.”
“So no Republican can win without these folks turning out in huge numbers and voting overwhelmingly for our candidate,” Mr. Scheffler said.
Another possible reason for spotlighting Mr. Ridge may be that the Arizona senator “set out simply to stroke” the former governor and pro-choice Republicans, particularly in Pennsylvania, but “without any real intention” of actually picking Mr. Ridge or any pro-choice candidate, Mr. Davenport said.
Ohio-based Republican campaign consultant Brett A. Sciotto agreed, saying a Ridge pick would so obviously be a disaster with the Republican base that it is “more likely that Senator McCain is showing some deference to Mr. Ridge and his supporters to generate support in Pennsylvania than seriously considering him as a running mate.”
Some analysts, such as Mr. Davenport, said Mr. McCain may have settled on Mr. Ridge and was using the Weekly Standard interview to ease the shock to pro-life voters, allowing them to spend their anger a week or so before Mr. McCain formally announces his pick - the theory being that so long as Mr. McCain sticks to his own pro-life stand, religious conservatives will get over it and return to the McCain fold, given that the alternative is Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
“McCain has demonstrated he is not overly concerned about his right flank,” Mr. Davenport said. “I don’t see McCain making a lot of outreach to social and religious conservatives. I am a little surprised by that, given there are some easy things he could be doing” to stroke religious conservatives.
Finally, one other possible aim - given that Mr. McCain had to know a furor would result from saying such admiring things about a pro-choice Republican - was simply to keep the attention of the press on Mr. McCain without spending a penny on advertising.
There certainly was much buzz. In a phone chat with a reporter Thursday, New Jersey Republican pollster Rick Shafton said the Ridge issue was so hot among conservatives that just during that conversation, he received four e-mails from different people with links to The Washington Times story on Thursday about Mr. McCain’s embrace of Mr. Ridge.
“People on the right feel the way like Elizabeth Edwards must have felt when she read about her husband in the National Enquirer,” Mr. Shafton said. “Why is McCain going out of his way to tell conservatives, ‘We don’t want your support’?”
“I can’t explain why he would do something so suicidal as this,” Mr. Shafton said. “He can’t think he’s going to attract independent and Republican pro-abortion types.”
But Mr. Shafton also speculated that floating Mr. Ridge may reflect overconfidence in the McCain team.
“I think the McCain campaign is being run by people who think they can’t lose this campaign because Barack Obama is black, and a black man will not win this election, no matter what kind of campaign they run.”