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Inside Politics
Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Kerry's veep choice: Gut-check time

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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- At the 1980 Republican convention in Detroit that nominated him for president, Ronald Reagan made genuine and repeated efforts to persuade his longtime rival, former President Gerald Ford, to become his vice presidential running mate.

Although the "dream ticket" never came to pass, the Californian's bold move and lack of concern about being overshadowed gave those of us who watched it conclusive evidence of Reagan's emotional security, his authentic self-confidence and his total commitment to defeating President Jimmy Carter in November.

The selection of a running mate says much more about the individual making the choice than it does about the individual chosen.

Presumed Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Massachusetts, whose admirable record of courage in Vietnam combat has not been matched in his political fights, can permanently and positively define himself, change the entire dynamic of the 2004 campaign and practically guarantee the defeat of George W. Bush.

Kerry just has to convince senator John McCain, R-Arizona, to join him on a national unity ticket.

The case for McCain is as straightforward and compelling as the Arizona maverick, himself. Refusing to sulk after his unsuccessful 2000 presidential campaign -- conspicuous for the ugly smearing of him and his family by the Bush forces in South Carolina -- he has become an even more vigorous and influential political leader.

He (joined by Kerry) led the Senate fight to increase CAFE standards that would have mandated all trucks and cars, by 2015, get 36 miles per gallon. He was instrumental in derailing the administration-backed energy plan as "just one park-barrel project larded onto another" and the "leave no lobbyist behind bill."

McCain took on two Washington Goliaths -- the Pentagon and Boeing Corp. -- and their joint scheme to charge taxpayers $16 billion for leasing 100 of the company's 767s as tankers for the Air Force.

He has had the guts to oppose easy tax cuts and popular spending, refusing to drown our children and grandchildren in an undertow of public debt.

How popular is John McCain? The Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that overall, four times as many Americans give him positive ratings as give him negative marks.

For Bush, the positive-negative ratio is barely five to four, and for Kerry it's positive by about three to two.

But here's the key: Among the 41 percent of Americans who attend church at least weekly (Bush beat Gore among this group two to one), only 34 percent rate Kerry positively and 39 percent rate him negatively. Regular churchgoers by a 46 percent to 13 percent margin rate McCain positively!

But what about John Kerry? The selection of the pro-life McCain would infuriate abortions rights groups. Important unions would oppose vehemently the free-trade McCain.

Liberals with agendas of increased federal spending would object to his zealous budget-balancing. Would John Kerry stand up to the pressure? Could he take the heat and the inevitable press criticism about his "compromising" the cherished "Democratic legacy"?

Somebody might point out that exactly one of the last nine all-Democratic national tickets has won a majority of the popular vote.

Americans value principled independence in their elected leaders. Recall the great political credit for courage candidate Bill Clinton got in 1992 for publicly chastising, while standing next to Jesse Jackson, an African-American rapper named Sister Souljah, who had said: "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?"

For Kerry, the enlisting of John McCain would be more than a "Sister Souljah" moment, it would be proof positive that he can stand up to powerful individuals and interests, that he intends to make this election about much more than narrow partisanship and that the party platform will be a brief statement of principles and not simply the collected wish lists of the confederation of interest groups that have passed for a national party.

Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, is that rare political grownup who knows who he is and what he believes and who as vice president would be an enormously valuable help to Kerry with Congress.

With his winning "Two Americas" message, Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carloina., gave his party a soul. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, an authority in national intelligence, has been all but unbeatable in his pivotal home state.

But the selection of none of them would make the clear statement about John Kerry's boldness, political courage, leadership and commitment to victory that his selection of the Man from Arizona would. And as an added bonus, the ticket would be George W. Bush's and Karl Rove's worst nightmare.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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