John Kerry has begun interviewing potential running mates, including Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri who spent about 90 minutes in the Democratic presidential candidate's Capitol office Wednesday.
Democratic officials familiar with the discussions said Kerry planned to meet with other candidates in the next several days. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the Massachusetts senator has insisted that his deliberations remain secret until he announces a nominee in July.
"I'm happy to do it if he wants me to do it," Gephardt told The Associated Press before the meeting. "I'm equally happy to not do it, and just help in other ways."
The Gephardt meeting came as another candidate, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, made the rounds in Washington but refused to say whether he was meeting with Kerry. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, a Democrat touted by some party officials as a potential candidate, also was in Washington with Vilsack. She said she was not meeting with Kerry.
Officials said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida is among the Democrats expected to meet with Kerry in the coming days. The Kerry-Gephardt meeting sparked a raft of running mate rumors, a ritual in presidential politics.
Kerry and his advisers aren't talking about the selection process, so everybody else is. People outside Kerry's inner circle are dropping the names of Vilsack, Sebelius and dozens of other politicians from both parties. Pundits compare the ritual to a political mating dance or high drama, with every public event a potential audition as Kerry eyes his future partner from afar.
"Against the backdrop of the presidential campaign, you always have this subtle, sometimes overt, unofficial campaign for vice president," said Michael Feldman, an aide to former Vice President Al Gore.
Gore watched a parade of ambitious Democrats, including Kerry, angle for a spot on the 2000 ticket. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut eventually won the veepstakes that year, edging out Kerry and a third senator, John Edwards of North Carolina, who again is running hard for the No. 2 job.
The last major candidate to bow to Kerry in the primary, Edwards has urged his fund-raising team to help fill Kerry's coffers. The Southerner has traveled the country on behalf of the nominee-in-waiting, accusing Republicans of creating two Americas — one for the wealthy and one for everyone else.
A recent Associated Press poll conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs suggested that a majority of registered voters want Kerry to pick Edwards.
Four years ago, few predicted that Bush would turn to Cheney, who headed his search team, or that Lieberman would become the first Jewish vice presidential nominee.
"The vice presidential nomination almost always doesn't go to the person who the people most expect. That doesn't bode well for John Edwards," said Steve McMahon, adviser to former Kerry rival Howard Dean.
One certain surprise would be Dean. His campaign against Kerry was bitterly fought, and advisers to the presidential candidate point to Dean's low approval ratings among voters. Still, the former Vermont governor is keeping hope alive by campaigning for Kerry in states where independent Ralph Nader cut into Gore's vote four years ago.
Gephardt, another former rival, is well liked by Kerry and many of his advisers. In the AP interview, he said Kerry's team has researched his background. "They've done some work on that, but my background is pretty well-known," he said.
Among those also doing vice presidential spade work: retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
It is bad form to lobby for the job, leaving hopefuls constantly searching for fresh and creative ways to describe their ambivalence. "There's a new one I am thinking of," Richardson said in April, "I would not accept at gunpoint."
A gun-shy Vilsack wouldn't even say whether he was meeting with Kerry on Wednesday. His advisers initially said he wasn't, then suggested they couldn't be sure. Sebelius said she was meeting with only one member of Kerry's team — her 23-year-old son, Ned, a Kerry staffer.
Her father, John Gilligan, was Ohio governor from 1971 to 1975. Sebelius said he lost re-election in part because voters thought he was flirting with the presidency instead of focusing on their interests.
Determined not to make the same mistake, the 56-year-old freshman governor said she plans to remain in Kansas — a standard non-denial denial of vice presidential interest — but says there's a bright side to speculation about Kerry putting a woman on his ticket.
"To have a number of women in the mix over and over again is good news," she told The AP.
The veepstakes game has become tiresome for Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has rejected Kerry's overtures about a bipartisan ticket.
Ron Klain, who worked for Gore in 2000, likened the process to dating. "You get limited glimpses at people and, ultimately, make a lifelong decision. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn't."