As we go through these choices, I see three significant criteria for the VP nominee:
(a) Will the candidate make a good Prez? (It's shocking how often this rudimentary yet crucial point is ignored by pundits and even by candidates themselves (e.g., Dan Quayle, '92).
(b) Will the candidate help politically more than other contenders?
(c) Is there a decent risk that this candidate might actually hurt the ticket during the campaign?
Running the finalists through my own analysis, I would rank them in the following order:
(1) Ret. Gen. Wesley Clark. Odds 3-1. Nobody's working harder. From being anointed the Dem rebuttal speaker to Bush last Saturday, to drafting a defense of Kerry's war record in the NY Times, to penning this learned and persuasive thinkpiece on Bush's failure to follow Reagan's example in his Iraq strategy, the general's waging a multi-front war all by his lonesome.
A few slips aside, I still believe he was the best candidate of the nine contenders for the reasons I stated earlier, and his credentials are even more vital as Iraq has become the defining issue of this campaign. More than anyone else running, Clark had been dead-on from the beginning about Iraq. By virtue of his prescience and experience, Clark's got more credibility than anyone else in the Democratic party attacking Bush on foreign policy, and his presence on the ticket will make a strong statement that the Dems are serious about doing Iraq right. Electorally, he's from Arkansas, which currently has Bush/Kerry in a dead heat. He's a moderate Southern general, providing that all-important "balance". And he'll further boost Kerry's military suck-up campaign and provide an even sharper contrast with the chickenhawks.
Drawback: somewhat gaffe-prone and thin-skinned, not good characteristics for an attack dog VP.
(2) Sen. John Edwards. Odds 3-1. If Iraq somehow gets "taken off the table" (unless Bush cuts and runs, the only plausible scenario is Iraq "fatigue" among voters), then Edwards would be by far the best choice. He's the winning face of Democratic populism -- served with loving spoonfuls of charm. He's got the best economic pitch of the Dems, but he strikes me as a little lightweight given the state of affairs. North Carolina is a strong lean Bush, and it's not clear that tabbing Edwards would automatically flip the state to a toss-up.
The strongest rationale for picking Edwards is that he appeals to pseudo-South areas of swing states, like southeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Another good reason is he'll bring his potent charisma and sweet talk to the table to complement Kerry, a man poorly versed in the seductive arts. But will Kerry spurn him like a jealous rival? Is a boyfriend, rather than an Oliver Wendell Holmes-type, what we're yearning for in a Prez in this age of anxiety? I gotta think not. I like Edwards, but he's just a tad callow for this climate.
(3) Gov. Tom Vilsack. Odds 10-1. Don't know anything about this guy, except he's adopted. And he's a likeable governor from Iowa with solid political skills. Iowa's now a swing state, and clearly it's a state that gets Kerry giddy, but is that enough? Apparently Vilsack's appeal to Midwesterners has played a big part in landing him on the short list, along with his executive experience. His pick might generate some excitement just because he's such an unknown, but he seems a bland pick.
(4) Sen. Bob Graham. Odds 15-1. This guy scribbles down everything he does in his diary ("5:30 p.m.: clipped my toenails while watching Animal Planet, It is hot and muggy."). In other words, he's weird. Sure, on paper, the man is just about perfect. Impeccable national security credentials. Was strongly against the Iraq War. Has been both governor and senator. Still popular in the Sunshine State. But in person, he's weird. Doesn't help that he wears peacock and teal ties which accentuates his off-kilter vite. And he's got all the charisma of argyle socks. Is a 2% boost in Florida enough to get him the VP nod? Time will tell.
(5) Rep. Richard Gephardt. Odds 4-1. Respected, decent, stolid, steady, beloved by Big Labor, popular in key swing state Missouri and neighboring Ohio. Sure to help in key states and with special interests without the risk of detonating. He's the safe, logical pick for the ultra-cautious Kerry. But he's also got "loser" written in boldface over where his eyebrows should be. Basically the personification of the wooden, old school party man, Gephardt's a dull 80s-style paleo-liberal who nevertheless caved to Bush on Iraq. In other words, he's John Kerry without the war record. He'd make a fine labor secretary in an Kerry administration, but please please please please please don't pick this guy, Big John. Gep's the Ghost of Democratic Past. You might as well go for Fritz Mondale.
Then there's Bill Richardson, charismatic Latino governor of an important swing state. Pretty sure there are skeletons in his closet, or else he'd be in the on the short list.
Lastly, there's the AC-130 gunship of contemporary politics, John McCain. Warhawk Andrew Sullivan, surveying the unmitigated disaster that is the Iraq War, is again beating the drums for another round of Kerry/McCain fantasizing, this time with the fanciful notion that Abu Ghraib might finally push McCain to accept. I think not. If Bushies smearing McCain's adopted daughter to Southern racists didn't drive him out of the party, nothing will.
Plausibility aside, though, I'd love to see this happen; for one thing, I think it'll bring a realignment. Moderate Republicans in the Southwest and Northeast have been trending Democratic, but a Kerry-McCain ticket will finally bring these voters into the fold. Or, alternatively, we'll have a centrist governing coalition, which would be equally desirable. Moreover, few politicians are as widely respected and commanding as McCain. And none are more beloved by the press. Kerry will be showered with two months worth of positive press if he went this route. They'd be an unbeatable duo, a surefire recipe for a landslide mudpie (52% Kerry/McCain, 42% Bush/Cheney, 5% Nader). But that would be way too easy, wouldn't it?