Hitting the Trail

The Court wrapped up another big term with a bang, so to speak, and I’m now going to spend the next four months covering the presidential campaign for ABC, focusing on the candidates for the number two spot on the ticket. It’s not as big a transition as you might think.

For one thing, the Court is news on the trail, not only because of guns and GMTO and the death penalty—the big decisions that stirred controversy. The Court is also a pressing political issue. The next president could get at least one nomination, maybe two. (Dare I say…three? Nah.)

With the justices so closely divided on the big hot-button issues, even one vote could made a huge difference. And as we saw with President Bush, the Court can be a President’s most lasting legacy. I’ll be covering all this in the days and weeks and months ahead—the Court and the campaign, the law, maybe some football, and a big focus on the vice presidential contenders.

And I have to tell you, again, this doesn’t feel like a huge transition. In many ways, it’s exactly like covering the run up to the Supreme Court nominations.

Think back to 2005, when we all were trying to figure out who Bush would select to replace Justice O’Connor and, then, Chief Justice Rehnquist. Would it be Wilkinson? Luttig? Roberts? Edith Brown Clement? Alito?

All the blogs and newspapers were buzzing about this potential pick or that one---speculating on whose stock was rising and whose was falling, who was eager to do it and who would refuse. Congressional leaders were weighing in with their favorites.

No one—including the contenders, themselves—had any idea who Bush would pick.

What were the pros and cons of each? The news stories varied, depending on which anonymous source outside the White House was doing the handicapping—and which potential pick he or she was favoring. Some of the names on the fantasy short lists were preposterous—some had so-called “vetting issues,” some had refused to be considered, some were there to placate folks from their home states.

Still, the great parlor game continued, and no one had much of a clue who Bush eventually would pick. After all, until a few days before, would’ve ever expected a dark horse like Harriet Miers?

It’s not a whole lot different now. We’re seeing all the news accounts, with long lists of possible picks for Obama and McCain. Some have them ranked in tiers, based on people close to McCain or Obama—or based on interviews with party officials who are pushing one prospect or another (ie the Romney supporters or the Biden supporters).

But the vetters for the campaign aren’t giving a blow-by-blow on who’s up and who’s down. The candidates themselves aren’t talking, either.

The bottom line here is that it’s early. On the McCain side, for example, a top insider says the real vetting—where they’re asking for documents and the like--hasn’t even started. None of his top prospects have been asked for that information.

And look at the timing. August/September is stacked up like this: the Olympics start Aug. 8 (08/08/08) and end Aug. 24th. The Democratic National Convention starts the next day, and runs through Thursday, the 28th. That’s immediately followed by the Republican National Convention, starting the following Monday, Sept. 1st.

Most Republican insiders think it would be insane for McCain to pick his vice president before the Democratic Convention, believing it’s better to let Obama show his hand first. That knowledge would give McCain more to work with in factoring the equation. If Obama picked an elder statesman, for example, someone like a Sen. Sam Nunn or the aforementioned Biden---then McCain might want to go with someone jazzier, like a Meg Whitman (eBay).

But when does Obama pick? He said recently that he was at least a month away—which could be just before the Olympics and, when, as some Democrats fear, the world is focused on Bejing.

Now I happen to think the Olympics just aren’t the big event they used to be (seriously, staggering the winter and summer Olympics every two years—instead of having both every four--just took the sparkle and anticipation out of the whole thing). And Obama hasn’t exactly been overshadowed by anything yet.

(NOTE to fellow college football fans: And does anyone really think the Olympics will be more distracting than the start of college football season, just before the Republican Convention, when the Tide begins its return to dominance Aug. 30 in the Georgia Dome?)

Either way, though, it's a wrinkle. And you have so many moving pieces. Who knows which potential pick will say something bizarre on Face the Nation? Who knows which one has deeply private “vetting issues?” Who knows if external forces come into play---as Hurricane Katrina did when President Bush, dealing with that disaster, swiftly tapped Roberts to replace Rehnquist?

So the fun starts. Where it ends (does it ever, really?) is anyone’s guess. But we’ll be there, making the most of it.

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