WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards (search) wants to be president and says he won't settle for anything less — not even the No. 2 slot.
Thanks, but no thanks, he says. Flatly.
But when it comes to disowning interest in running for vice president, saying "no" can mean "check with me later."
Check with him later. Edwards' strong performance as runner-up so far has raised his prospects as a running mate. And politics has a rich history of people who think being on the ticket is a chump job, then chomp at the bit for it.
Nelson Rockefeller (search) once called the vice presidency "standby equipment," then climbed on board. Al Gore called it a "political dead-end" in one election, then became Bill Clinton's running mate, and vice president, in the next.
Letting on that you will settle for the vice presidency is too risky for those bidding for the White House, says Erwin Hargrove, professor emeritus of political science at Vanderbilt University.
"It would take the heart out of their supporters if they said, 'I'm willing to settle for second place."'
Besides, he says, "To do all this, psychologically you have to believe you're going to win. There's a certain amount of self-hypnosis that you convince yourself you're going to win."
Edwards even has started to back off his denials a bit. Campaigning near Los Angeles on Thursday, he was again asked about any interest in taking second place on a national ticket.
"I've made the case to be the presidential candidate," Edwards said
That's different from saying he wouldn't do it.
"There's a certain amount of hypocrisy," says Hargrove. Or at least their head isn't in the possibility yet.
History has shown, time and again, that "no" doesn't mean "never." Secrets do exist.
In 1988, Gore, then a senator and one of seven presidential candidates, said, "Anyone who thinks that I am running for the vice presidency will find out differently. Anyone who thinks that this campaign is aimed at something other than the top spot at the White House is going to be surprised."
"I have no interest in it," he said then. "Might very well turn it down, indeed, and probably would. I have no interest in it. I think Vice President Bush will demonstrate again this year that it is a political dead end."
Four years later, he joined the ticket with Clinton.
In 1980, George H.W. Bush had announced the end of his two-year quest for the presidency and the only question remaining about the Republican ticket headed by Ronald Reagan was the vice presidential nomination.
Bush said defiantly, "I'm not leaving the door open." Then he became Reagan's running mate and vice president.
Nelson Rockefeller refused offers to be "standby equipment" as he referred to the nomination for vice president. But when he was asked to take on the role by President Ford in the summer of 1974, after the Watergate scandal, he did not hesitate.
In any event, Kerry hasn't tipped his hand on a running-mate choice if he wins the nomination, as he is heavily favored to do. Among his other rivals, Howard Dean, at one point, indicated he might take the job if offered, then said, "No, I've got to win first."
A candidate's choice of who'll join him on the ticket doesn't really make a difference, Hargrove says, adding, "Most of the time, the vice president doesn't affect the vote."
Lyndon B. Johnson was one exception, generally credited with helping John Kennedy win Southern states in 1960. Kennedy didn't think his chief opponent for the presidential nomination would accept. But he did.
Like LBJ, Edwards' strength as a running mate might be in attracting votes in the South, where Democrats struggle in presidential campaigns.
The vice president's job has been the butt of jokes for ages.
Even Vice President Dick Cheney played down his job at a recent dinner for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Reflecting on his time as a scholar there, he said, it was "a time when I had an office, a small staff and not much in the way of actual responsibility. It turned out to be a lot like the vice presidency."
Abraham Lincoln's first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, felt so unneeded and unwanted that he went home to Maine and joined the Coast Guard.
And Thomas Jefferson, who followed John Adams to the vice presidency and then the presidency, initially saw the No. 2 job as a vacation from a strenuous life. "A more tranquil and unoffending station could not have been found for me," he wrote.