Quietly, Obama Begins The Quest To Find A Running Mate

Very quietly, Sen. Barack Obama has begun the process that will end in his choosing a running mate, Democrats inside and outside the campaign said.

Obama has sworn a small group of his senior staff to secrecy. He is determined to start the vice presidential search on his own schedule and has said publicly, and repeatedly, that he will not talk about ticket-mates until the race for the nomination itself concludes.

But on his behalf, staffers are putting together a team to assist the search committee, and a hand-full of Democrats connected with the campaign will start to pull together dossiers (based only on open source research and press clippings at this point) on a large number of potential picks so that Obama can have something to read when he starts to think about the choice.

By June 4, the day after Democrats finish voting, the campaign hopes to have a full team in place.

"He wants this done right," said one person who is privy to the candidate and campaign's thinking on the matter. "He takes this very seriously."

James A. Johnson, who vetted potential nominees for Sen. John Kerry in 2004, is playing a major role. He has advised Obama and the campaign about the architecture of the process, though it is not clear whether he will reprise his role as head of the search committee. Ex-Sen. Tom Daschle is also providing advice.

"As always, we don't have anything to say about it," said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's deputy communications director.

Kerry began his three-month search process in March of 2004. Johnson and his team looked at scores potential candidates and vetted about a dozen of them, ultimately settling on Ex-Sen. John Edwards.

Johnson, a former CEO of Fannie Mae who is currently vice chairman of Perseus LLC, a merchant bank, also vetted vice presidential candidates for Walter Mondale, whose campaign he chaired. On the eve of the convention in 1984, Mr. Mondale was set to choose Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, only to find irreconcilable political problems with the business dealings of Ms. Feinstein's husband, Richard Blum. Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro instead. Ironically, questions about Ferraro's husband, a real estate developer, would dog her throughout the general election campaign. Mr. Johnson said later that the experience if 1984 had taught him to start much earlier and vet much more thoroughly.

The vetting process entails a rigorous schedule of interviews focusing on everything from politics to potential embarrassments -- Did they ever employ a nanny on whose behalf they did not pay Social Security taxes, for example; did they experiment with drugs or people in college? -- and potential candidates are required to give the search team access to their tax returns and other financial records.

Aside from the question of what to do with Sen. Hillary Clinton, several political imperatives confront Obama as he begins to think about his choice. One is that the candidates with whom he has bonded would not necessarily serve his political needs. Another is that if he chooses a Democrat from the party's establishment, like Sens. Clinton, Dodd or Biden, he might undercut his argument that the establishment needs to go. If he chooses someone young and with a relative lack of executive experience, he opens the ticket to criticism that it is too green. If he chooses a Republican or a pro-life Democrat, he risks a major backlash from Democratic women as he tries to bring more of them to his side after the primary season ends. If he chooses someone young and flashy, he risks being upstaged. And while Obama discounts the experience argument, many of his advisers do not.

Potential ticket-mates, in no particular order, include Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA), Gov. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Ex-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD), Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM), Ex-Sen. John Edwards, (D-NC), Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS), Gov. Janet Napolitano (D-AZ), Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) ex-Rep. Tim Roemer (D-IN), Gov. Ted Strickland (D-OH) and others.