[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/05/22/art.mccaingrill.ap.jpg caption="McCain is hosting friends and potential VP candidates this weekend."](CNN) - Hidden Valley Ranch. It’s a famous salad dressing, and there’s plenty of talk that John McCain will be looking to dress up the fall ticket at his Sedona, Arizona property that bears the same name. He is assembling three potential running mates at Hidden Valley this weekend. It’s a chance to grill for some good political friends, his campaign insists, but there’s no question that in terms of election year optics, it sure looks like he’s seeing how well they play together in social situations.
McCain certainly loves to grill. Steak, chicken, ribs (though purists will say you smoke ribs). He once even fired up the bar-b-que for the boys and girls on the bus, hosting the traveling press corps one recent weekend. But is this Memorial Day grill-up really just a social event? One man who should know is Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. He attended just such an event on February 29th. This morning Pawlenty told me his weekend was “largely social." I asked him “do you talk a lot of politics? Do you get a sense he’s feeling you out?” “Mostly what you see is John McCain in a relaxed setting," he said. Ha! “Largely” and “mostly”. So he IS kicking the tires on potential running mates!
Every four years we play this parlor game of ‘veepstakes.' But who does have what McCain wants and needs? Pawlenty offered some insight this morning.
“A governor," he said “would bring executive experience, domestic experience, health care reform” “Any decision will be based on geography and politics and credentials."
Pawlenty has one important credential for McCain – he’s considered the most conservative governor of Minnesota since the 20’s. That’s good for a candidacy that conservatives still haven’t fully signed on to. And he’s good on economics, balancing Minnesota’s deficit-ridden budget without raising taxes. Could he deliver the ‘land of 10,000 lakes’ to McCain this year? Pawlenty says “in recent times, we’ve had some success with Republicans winning statewide”, but he acknowledges history is against him. Minnesota has been blue since JFK was elected. Heck, it’s the one state Walter Mondale managed to win in 1984.
Most of the veepstakes action has focused on governors, the more famous names like Pawlenty, Romney, Huntsman, Crist and Jindal. Good management and economic creds to shore up McCain on an issue he admits isn’t his “strongest suit”. But Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos thinks McCain should – and probably would go in another direction. National security. Picking someone in lockstep with his support for the military and war in Iraq. And that person, says Castellanos, is South Dakota’s John Thune. Thune is a giant killer – handing Tom Daschle his walking papers in 2004. He’s got John Edwards’ good looks and scores a perfect ‘100’ on the American Conservative Union’s 2006 rating.
And it just so happens that Thune was out to McCain’s home for a ‘grilling’, the same weekend as Pawlenty. Pass the ranch….