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Pressure's on with McCain expected to make VP pick Friday

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DENVER — Overshadowed by his rival's convention, Republican John McCain is hours away from grabbing back the spotlight by choosing his running mate.

McCain is expected to announce his choice Friday in Ohio, just as the newly nominated Democratic team of Barack Obama and Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., roll out of their convention in Denver and McCain heads to Minnesota for his nominating convention next week.

McCain hasn't given any clue, but Republican insiders and analysts say that a fast-changing landscape in recent days has helped some potential choices and hurt others.

Among the changes:

  • McCain has pulled into a neck-and-neck fight with Obama after trailing for weeks. He led 46-44 percent in a Gallup daily tracking poll released Tuesday. That lessens the need for him to make a dramatic long-shot pick such as Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive officer, to shake up the race.
  • He's shored up support from social conservatives and has seen a payoff in the polls. That could make him less inclined to anger them now with an abortion-rights supporter such as former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.
  • Obama picked Biden, an experienced hand in foreign policy and debates, which could put a new emphasis on finding someone who could take on Biden in the vice presidential debate this fall.
  • Some insiders think that the prospects of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have risen; others think they've ebbed.

    Regardless, the pick is crucial for McCain, especially as he announces it Friday on his 72nd birthday, which calls attention anew to his age and to speculation that he might serve only one term if elected.

    "He's had a rocky relationship with the party's conservative base," said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist and a veteran of earlier Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes presidential campaigns.

    "The Republican Party is the-next-guy-in-line party. Whoever he picks as vice president could become the next guy in line. If he picks a mainstream conservative, then the conservatives can get excited not just about the McCain candidacy but the future of the party."

    A look at the most-mentioned contenders in three categories:

    THE MAINSTREAM:

    Pawlenty and Romney top most lists.

    "A week ago, Romney and Pawlenty looked like the two most likely conservative choices. But I think over the last several days, events have conspired against both of them," said Dan Schnur, a former aide to McCain in the 2000 campaign who's now the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

    Schnur said Pawlenty might not match up well with Biden in a debate and that the flap over McCain not remembering how many homes he and his wealthy wife owned made it more difficult to pick another wealthy candidate such as Romney.

    Another Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn't want to offend any potential candidates, said Romney's wealth might hurt him in economically depressed Michigan, offsetting the benefit he'd have because his father was the governor there in the 1960s.

    Romney was in Denver on Tuesday to attack the Obama-Biden ticket. He gave a crisp performance and offered a possible preview of an attack on Biden's experience in foreign affairs.

    As for his own prospects, Romney said, "I've got nothing for you on the VP question. . . . He will select a fine running mate. I don't know who that will be."

    THE BIG TENT:

    McCain has said kind things about two potential running mates who support abortion rights, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, and Ridge.

    Such a choice would boost McCain's image as a maverick who's willing to buck his party base. McCain has long had a strained relationship with social conservatives, but he won kudos during a recent forum on faith in California.

    Selecting a running mate who favors abortion rights not only would wipe out those gains, it also would "ignite a civil war in the Republican Party," said John Hinshaw, a political scientist at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania.

    Lieberman remains a wild card, however, because McCain likes him.

    "I think he wants to do Lieberman," said a Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk about the pick. "I think his aides floated the idea of Lieberman to prove to McCain that it would get knocked down."

    THE LONG BALL:

    Two things might lead McCain to make a very unconventional pick such as Fiorina or eBay CEO Meg Whitman: the idea that he's trailing and needs to shake things up with someone from outside government, or that picking an accomplished woman would help him attract the votes of women who supported Hillary Clinton and are angry that Obama passed her over for his running mate.

    McCain has used Fiorina as a surrogate. She also traveled to Denver this week to attack the Obama-Biden ticket. McCain cited Whitman during the faith forum as one of three wise people who'd influence him as president.

    "Selecting a Whitman or Fiorina may have made more sense when he was 12 points behind," Schnur said. "If he's even in the polls, he may be less likely to take a risk. . . . But then, John McCain does like to take risks."

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