WASHINGTON — Democrats are preparing to pounce on Senator McCain's running mate, whoever it is.
If he selects a former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, Carleton Fiorina, Democrats will portray her as an "elitist, out of touch CEO." If it is the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, he'll be a flip-flopper. And if it is the governor of Minnesota, Timothy Pawlenty, he will be the "Godfather of No."
As the Arizona senator and his top advisers scour the records and backgrounds of potential Republican running mates, so too are Democratic operatives. Mr. McCain's announcement, which could now come at any time, will set off a race between both parties to define the candidate in the public eye.
That battle could be key for Mr. McCain, because, with few exceptions, the candidates most often mentioned on his short list are far from household names nationwide. How the candidate is introduced to voters will go a long way toward determining whether the choice helps or hurts Mr. McCain come November.
Researchers at the Democratic National Committee — like their counterparts at the Republican National Committee — have compiled dossiers totaling hundreds of pages on most if not all of the politicians subject to speculation as potential McCain running mates. Filling their pages are choice quotes and votes the candidates would likely just as soon forget, along with material showing the running mates at odds with Mr. McCain on a range of issues.
Just as each possible No. 2 offers strengths and weaknesses for Mr. McCain, some will be easier than others for Democrats to tar. Here is a rundown of frequently mentioned names:
Of the Republicans thought to be on Mr. McCain's shortlist, Mr. Romney would provide by far the most ammunition for Democrats. The DNC, along with several of his Republican, had a field day hammering Mr. Romney during the Republican primary over his changes in position on key issues, most notably abortion.
In the event of a McCain-Romney ticket, Democrats are likely to feature a greatest hits collection of the attacks the two lobbed at each other during their primary battle, which for a time exceeded the clash between Senators Obama and Clinton in its rancor. Mr. Romney derided Mr. McCain as a Washington insider, criticized his position on taxes, campaign finance, and immigration, and even accused him of having "a lack of understanding of our economy." In response to one negative television ad from Mr. Romney, Mr. McCain told reporters: "Never get into a wrestling match with a pig."
While Romney backers say his business background would lend credibility to Mr. McCain's economic message and his tenure as governor would add executive experience, Democrats would likely welcome the pairing. "Mitt Romney is the ultimate target-rich environment for Democrats," a Democratic consultant, Daniel Gerstein, said. "I think a lot of Democratic political types are praying that McCain picks him."
On the other end of the spectrum is Senator Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who caucuses with Democrats but is a close ally of Mr. McCain's. The Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, he is seen as a long shot to be picked, but Mr. McCain could turn his way if he is looking to shake up the race with a surprise choice. His selection would signal a sharp move to the political center for Mr. McCain and would surely provoke the wrath of conservatives wary of Mr. Lieberman's position on social and economic issues.
For Democrats, however, no pick would be more awkward. Party leaders have largely kept quiet on Mr. Lieberman's support for Mr. McCain, fearful that he would bolt their caucus entirely and strip them of their majority in the Senate. Should he join the Republican ticket, they may abandon that fear altogether, confident that a gain of more Senate seats this fall will render his position moot.
The perception battle would take hold in earnest if Mr. McCain choose one of several lesser-known senators and governors reportedly under serious consideration. Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota, a 47-year-old in his second term, could help Mr. McCain carry the Gopher State, which has voted blue in recent elections. Democrats are likely to argue that the selection of Mr. Pawlenty, an ally of the Christian right, indicates that Mr. McCain is worried about his standing with conservatives. Democrats may also point to Mr. Pawlenty's frequent vetoes of bills passed by the state legislature, which caused the Minnesota Star-Tribune to label him the "Godfather of No" in a headline. The governor has also attracted the ire of fiscal conservatives, who accuse him of reneging on a pledge not to raise taxes. Mr. Pawlenty and his supporters say taxes were not raised, merely fees — an argument that mirrors one made by Mr. Romney against criticism by Mr. McCain and others to defend his efforts to close a budget gap in Massachusetts.
Mr. Ridge, a former governor of Pennsylvania, served as secretary of homeland security during President Bush's first term. His selection would irk social conservatives because of his support for abortion rights, but he could help Mr. McCain in Pennsylvania, which many Republicans see as a decisive state in the election. Political analysts say that Democrats would probably pick on Mr. Ridge's record at the Department of Homeland Security and his ties to the Bush administration rather than his time in Pennsylvania, where he is well-regarded and seen as having governed effectively. "He's a successful two-term governor who left office fairly popular," a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College, G. Terry Madonna, said. While he was not known as a divisive figure in Pennsylvania, neither was he known as a governor who liked to cross the political aisle, Mr. Madonna said. "He didn't have to so he didn't." During his tenure in Washington, he drew criticism for management of homeland security and for the much-maligned color-coded national alert system. But, Mr. Madonna said, "he has in a sense the ultimate trump card, which is that we were not attacked under his watch."
Mr. McCain may turn to Ms. Fiorina, a former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, if he wants to peel off Clinton supporters and attract women voters in general. Democrats are likely to seize both on her occasional missteps as a McCain surrogate on economic issues and on her record at Hewlett-Packard. A Democratic dossier labels her an "elitist, out-of-touch CEO" and cites the loss of 18,000 jobs under her watch and the $42 million severance package she received upon being ousted by the company's board. The language indicates that Democrats would try to blunt criticism of Senator Obama as out-of-touch with working class voters by citing Ms. Fiorina's wealth and her defense of outsourcing at Hewlett-Packard.