McCain denies speculation he'd be Kerry running mate

Maverick Republican briefly teases Democrats with vision of super ticket

March 11, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - It was one of the shorter political flirtations in memory. But with speculation over who will be No. 2 on the Democratic presidential ticket intensifying, Sen. John McCain, a maverick Republican who took on President Bush for the White House in 2000, seemed briefly yesterday to bat his eyelashes at John Kerry.

By the end of the day, McCain was animatedly swatting down some Democrats' dreams of a Kerry-McCain ticket. "I will not," he declared, "be a candidate for vice president in 2004."

But the Arizonan, whose unpredictable streak and sometimes impish humor have long kept Republicans on their toes, had fed speculation by declining at first to rule out the idea.

"John Kerry is a close friend of mine," McCain said yesterday morning in an ABC interview. "We have been friends for years."

If the Massachusetts senator asked him to join the Democratic ticket, McCain told ABC, "Obviously, I would entertain it."

McCain went on to downplay the odds that any such offer would be made, insisting there is "no scenario" in which he could imagine it happening.

McCain also outlined the issues on which he said he differed with the Democratic mainstream: He described himself as a "pro-life, free-trading, defense and deficit hawk."

But those disclaimers were lost in the shuffle as Democrats and political observers permitted themselves the brief fantasy of a Kerry-McCain "super ticket" that would join two Vietnam War veterans.

To some Democrats, the idea was tantalizing because Kerry, whom Bush is painting as a flip-flopping liberal, would be paired with one of the best-liked figures in either party - a man with a record of attracting independent voters.

"Democrats would love to have John McCain because he is probably the most popular political figure in this country and a beacon for reform," said Steve Murphy, a media consultant who ran Richard A. Gephardt's presidential campaign until the Missouri congressman - whose name has also been mentioned as a potential vice-presidential pick - dropped out of the race.

"Speculation on John Kerry's vice-presidential choice is the No. 1 power game in Washington at the moment," Murphy said.

Kerry's team was mum about whom he might select or when.

"John Kerry's going to run a very private, very respectful process for selecting his running mate," said Stephanie Cutter, a Kerry spokeswoman.

The McCain boomlet came on the eve of Kerry's visit today to Capitol Hill. He will meet with at least one other colleague who has been the subject of vice-presidential musings: Sen. John Edwards, who quit the presidential race just last week.

Kerry also plans to meet today with House and Senate Democrats, as well as with the Congressional Hispanic and Black caucuses, as the party unites around him and begins coordinating its message with Kerry's campaign.

McCain explained the flurry of speculation over his vice presidential prospects by noting the relative lull that has followed Kerry's sweeping triumphs in the Democratic primaries. He said his remarks were not meant as a slap at Bush - or even to feed speculation about a run with Kerry - but to show respect to the Massachusetts senator, a close friend.

"Of course I'd listen - I meant listen - to anything he would say," McCain said in an interview yesterday evening. "The news media is just so jaded and so bored that they will seize on any offhanded remark."

Still, McCain's one-time rivalry with Bush - which became nasty during their 2000 fight for the Republican nomination - and the senator's image as an independent-minded player willing to challenge his party seemed to feed the idea.

Despite playing a role in Bush's re-election bid - he campaigned for the president in New Hampshire - McCain criticized the Bush team as recently as last weekend.

Asked what he thought of Bush's new TV ads, he told ABC he "might not have used" the image of a flag-covered coffin coming out of the World Trade Center rubble.

With Bush's TV ad effort under way and Democratic groups striking back by launching their own yesterday, it seemed the race was in full force.

Campaigning in Chicago, Kerry told a supporter he would "keep pounding," saying of Republicans, "These guys are the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen. It's scary."

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