WASHINGTON - John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has repeatedly and personally asked Sen. John McCain, the independent-minded Arizona Republican, to consider being his running mate, but McCain has refused, people who have spoken to both men said yesterday.
The Massachusetts senator made his first direct overtures to McCain about three weeks after locking up the Democratic nomination in March, according to one person who has spoken to both men. Kerry approached him again, in person or by telephone, as many as seven times, and as recently as last week, the source said.
"It was always artfully phrased, but he asked him on several occasions to serve as his running mate," the individual said. "He'd say, `I don't want to formally ask, because I don't want to be formally rejected, but having said that, would you do it?' or `I need you to do it,' or `I want you to do it.'"
"It was always phrased in such a way as to give both men plausible deniability," the individual added.
Neither McCain nor Kerry could be reached for comment. Stephanie Cutter, Kerry's communications director, said: "Senator Kerry and Senator McCain are good friends and have spoken during the course of the campaign, including when Kerry called McCain to thank him for standing up and defending Kerry against baseless political attacks."
Aides to McCain did not return repeated telephone calls yesterday. His chief of staff, Mark Salter, told the Associated Press, which first reported the discussions, that "Senator McCain categorically states that he has not been offered the vice presidency by anyone."
Less than a month ago, McCain denied having even casual discussions with Kerry on the subject.
Word of Kerry's personal entreaties, and McCain's flat refusal, may bring an end to the persistent and at times fevered speculation among Democrats and others about the potential for a bipartisan ticket, with the two friends and Vietnam veterans matching up against President Bush and Vice President Cheney, neither of whom fought in that war.
But the denials did not stop prominent members of Congress - including Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat considered a potential Kerry running mate - from suggesting that a Kerry-McCain ticket would be unstoppable in the fall.