Fineman: Inside the Hillary Veepstakes

Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana is a practical, clear-eyed sort—and a shrewd politician. Last year, he took a close look at the industrial-strength campaign machinery Sen. Hillary Clinton was assembling, and wisely decided to take a pass on running for president. Those same good instincts led him to endorse her candidacy the other week—just before the Clinton Coronation Parade stepped off in earnest.

Now, some caveats. I know that the first votes will not be cast for three more months. I know that anything could happen and probably will; it almost always does in politics. I know that I am writing my first iteration of this inevitable story at a ridiculously early point in the cycle.

But I also know that men—Bayh is one of them—are already lining up for the supporting role of a lifetime: third (vice presidential) wheel in the Clinton campaign. The angling has begun.

Whom would Hillary (and Bill) choose to be their running mate should she win the nomination?

Here's an admittedly way-too-early rundown of some possibilities:

Evan Bayh. He won't help his party's nominee carry a state; if Indiana goes Democratic in 2008, then the election's a landslide of epic proportions. What Bayh does bring is a low-key centrism on budgetary matters; a deep, and rather hawkish, knowledge of foreign policy; and an utter absence of excitement. If Bill and Hill are too exciting for their own good, Bayh would be a calming counterweight. Bill is an open admirer, appreciating Bayh's skill at surviving in a Red State; the Clinton and Bayh camps are close. Top Clinton fund-raiser Nancy Jacobson worked for Bayh; so did her husband, Clinton pollster Mark Penn. And Bayh has been "pre-vetted"; he was a possible running mate for Al Gore in 2000.

Tom Vilsack. When I saw the former governor of Iowa in Des Moines the other week, he was frank about his ambition to be part of the Clinton team in some capacity. The job he wants is veep. Like Bayh, he's already had the political colonoscopy, in this case one administered by the John Kerry team that was considering him for running mate in 2004. Unlike Bayh, Vilsack probably does bring, or help bring, a specific state: Iowa, which went narrowly for President Bush in 2004. It's a must-win for the Democrats, and Vilsack remains a highly respected figure there. Known as a mild-mannered, decent type (it's Iowa, after all), Vilsack has tried to show that he is nasty enough for the big-time presidential campaign battles, uncharacteristically attacking Rudy Giuliani's personal life. That drew a mild public (but I doubt private) rebuke from Hillary.

Bill Richardson. He's busy running his own campaign now, of course, but in the event he doesn't make it, the governor of New Mexico would almost surely bring along his own state, which also narrowly went to Bush in 2004, if he joined the Democratic ticket. More important, he would be a regional ambassador in the Southwest—the new fault line in the Electoral College map—and in ethnic terms to the nation's Hispanics. Much depends on Hillary's dealings with the antiwar movement. Richardson's insistence on the immediate withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq has won him a following. Will Hillary need to make sure that she doesn't face a third-party peace candidate? If so, Richardson could be her leftward link next fall.

Ken Salazar. If Hispanics are crucial (and they are), and if the Southwest is crucial (and it is), then Hillary could turn to the Colorado senator—especially since his state, which went for Bush, is likely to be another crucial Electoral College battleground. Salazar's Hispanic background is a plus in the region. A lawyer and former state attorney general, he is well-liked but has little foreign-policy experience. On the other hand, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld gave experience a bad name. He has Clinton operational ties, too: Hillary's advertising guru, Mandy Grunwald, also works for Salazar.

Phil Bredesen. He is another well-regarded governor, from a Southern state—Tennessee—that the Clintons would love to force the GOP to defend. Bredesen is not a scintillating figure (again, the Clintons can take care of that on their own), but he is a hands-on, experienced executive with a good track record on jobs, education, health care and fighting drug abuse. He grew up in rural New York state, as it happens, but managed to win re-election in the Volunteer State last year with nearly 70 percent of the vote.

James Webb. The Virginia senator may be a little too colorful for his own good, but he is sitting in a state that Democrats think they have a chance to crack in 2008—and the other Virginian who might be a good fit, former governor Mark Warner, is running for the U.S. Senate. Webb's military bona fides are unassailable, of course, as a Vietnam Vet and former Navy secretary—and Hillary may need that kind of help.

Brian Schweitzer. The governor of Montana may seem like an obscure figure from an obscure corner of the country, but in Democratic circles he is very highly regarded. Montana is not in play—and it has only three electoral votes—but we are talking here of something else. The idea of picking someone from way outside the Beltway, geographically and spiritually, could be appealing to the ultimate insiders, the Clintons. Plus Schweitzer is no hayseed; his ideas on energy and resources are cutting-edge. He is a rancher type who is refreshingly free of cant—and "can't."

John Edwards. Been there, done that, and won't be interested. Neither will the Clintons, after things get as nasty as I expect they soon will in the nomination race. Edwards, who has fallen off the pace in fund-raising and has had to accept federal money, will have to start attacking Clinton aggressively if he wants to stay in the race.

Barack Obama. The man most likely to make me deeply regret having written this column.