By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – After months of secrecy and intrigue, presidential rivals Barack Obama and John McCain are almost ready to unveil the winners in the vice presidential sweepstakes.
In the next few weeks, both candidates will end the suspense of a cat-and-mouse selection game that has been conducted with rare discipline and infrequent leaks.
Will Democrat Obama defy predictions, bury his doubts and make former rival Hillary Clinton his choice? Or will he turn to an ally and friend who heads a battleground state like Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine?
Is Republican McCain ready to tap former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who seemed to annoy him so often during their primary battle but has since become a steady surrogate?
Obama and McCain have largely kept the wraps on their deliberations over such questions, even while appearing in public over the last few weeks with many of those sparking the heaviest speculation.
“Both camps deserve applause. This has been a perfect process on both sides,” said Democratic consultant Dane Strother. “They have kept the discussion on their ideas about the future instead of going back and forth in public about who they will pick, and that doesn’t always happen.”
A report on Monday that McCain would announce his choice this week in order to upstage Obama’s overseas trip ignited a frenzy of speculation, which the Arizona senator’s aides were happy to keep alive with a series of “no comment” responses.
“We have the same answer as we always had,” McCain told reporters with a laugh during a campaign appearance in New Hampshire on Tuesday. “We’ll let you know when we have an announcement.”
Obama also has refused to discuss his thinking about a running mate and the vetting of potential choices like Clinton, Kaine, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh.
“The next time you hear from me about the vice presidential selection process will be when I have selected a vice president,” the Illinois senator told reporters last month.
But time is running out on the process, which must conclude for Obama by the Democratic convention in the last week of August and for McCain by the Republican convention in the first week in September.
Neither candidate is likely to compete for attention with the start of the Olympics in China, which begin on August 8. That leaves the next two weeks — or the days immediately before each convention — as the window for an announcement.
Many strategists in both parties expect the choices to come shortly before the conventions. Some Republicans have urged McCain to try to deflate any Obama momentum by announcing his choice right after the Democratic convention ends.
McCain, 71, is well-known for his foreign and military policy expertise, but choices like former venture capitalist Romney and former Budget Director and Trade Representative Rob Portman could boost his economic credentials.
Obama, 46, must decide whether he wants to reinforce his message of change with a new face like Kaine or Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, or add foreign policy heft and experience with someone like Biden or former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn.
For more purely geographical considerations, Kaine could help in the emerging battleground of Virginia and Bayh could help in Indiana, which Obama hopes to put in play.
The possibilities for McCain include three choices from battleground states — former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, who was governor of Pennsylvania, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida.
Other Republican names mentioned include South Dakota Sen. John Thune, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a young conservative who could help McCain mend fences with the party’s base and bring youth and energy to the ticket.
The tightly run selection process has been guided for McCain by lawyer Arthur Culvahouse, and for Obama by former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder and Caroline Kennedy, President John Kennedy’s daughter.
A third member of the Obama team, James Johnson, stepped down after questions surfaced about favorable loans he received from Countrywide Financial Corp., a key player in the U.S. housing crisis.
A heavy veil of secrecy has at times contributed to speculation about the process on both sides. A flood of visits to the gym last week prompted questions about whether Obama was meeting vice presidential candidates there.
McCain had a weekend getaway at his Arizona cabin with three top contenders — Romney, Jindal and Crist — that was billed as a social gathering. Reporters were kept miles away.
But many of the contenders have appeared in public with Obama and McCain, where the script requires that they play down their chances. Last week, Obama appeared with Bayh and Nunn.
“It’s good for my ego,” Bayh told reporters. “But I should probably let Senator Obama and his campaign address those kinds of questions.”
(Editing by Patricia Wilson and David Wiessler)
(For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters “Tales from the Trail: 2008” online at http://blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)