Mitt Romney did not expect the lush beauty of John and Cindy McCain's Arizona ranch in the rust-colored high country near Sedona. He and his wife, Ann, were there recently for what was described as a "purely social" stay with some of McCain's closest political advisers (über-operative Charlie Black, Sens. Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham) and a smattering of veep possibles: Govs. Bobby Jindal (Louisiana) and Charlie Crist (Florida) and Sen. Sam Brownback. "I expected an adobe home and clouds of dust in the yard," Romney told me last week. Instead, he found a rambling wood-frame home on grassy bottomland dotted with orchards and a broad, fast-flowing stream framed by canyon walls. "It looked like Virginia down in there," he said.
In McCain's band-of-brothers world, it pays to know the turf. So if you are a guest, here's what else to expect: a host who greets you in his weekend gear (blue jeans, Naval Academy shirt); bird watching (McCain claims to have spotted 67 species on the property); chilled vodka from the fridge, if you are so inclined; Beach Boys and Eagles on the boombox; casual, but earnest, talk about public-policy issues, and a gracious hostess who will, nevertheless, size you up in a second and know where you fit—or don't—into the family future. Central to the day is a lecture from McCain on the how-to and health benefits of grilled chicken. Fork and spatula in hand on an outdoor wooden deck, he captains a gas grill the size of an aircraft carrier. "He says you have to make sure you cook it all the way to the bone," said Romney, sounding as though he thought this might be on the final.
As the GOP's presumptive nominee picks a running mate, intimates say he'll focus on finding someone with whom he can comfortably share the deck of his presidency. Electoral College strategy, demographics, ideological balance, experience—that's all secondary to whether the former Navy pilot can envision his choice as copilot. His close friends use varied phrases to describe this. "Personal compatibility," says former senator Warren Rudman. "Likability," says former Defense secretary William Cohen. "He is not going to pick a clone or a crazy," says Washington lobbyist Ken Duberstein. "It will be someone he's got great chemistry with."
The chemistry test yields some early possibilities: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, former Ohio congressman and budget director Rob Portman, Mississippi Gov. and former GOP chairman Haley Barbour, and even nominal Democrat Lieberman. Among these, some insiders argue Portman, 52, who has solid fiscal-reform credentials, makes the most sense. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's name gets mentioned, and conservatives talk up Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, but she is all but unknown to McCain. The candidate himself seems fascinated by Jindal. Of Indian descent and only 36, he is a former Rhodes scholar and an ardent proponent of the free market. McCain has been with him several times in recent weeks. Still, Jindal is unlikely to be a finalist. "Everybody admires the guy, but he probably is too young and inexperienced," says Cohen.
Then there's Romney. Last week he was on the road, auditioning for veep by headlining fund-raisers as he talked up McCain and trashed Barack Obama. On the surface, a McCain-Romney alliance seems improbable. They are vastly different personalities: Top Gun vs. straight arrow. They clashed during the slash-and-burn primary season. But under the watchful eyes of McCain lieutenants, the two men got along pleasantly, I am told. Good thing Romney eats chicken.