WASHINGTON – Democrat John Kerry's (search) campaign has begun background checks of top running mate prospects, including former rivals Dick Gephardt (search) and John Edwards (search), while other hopefuls anxiously await word that they're worthy of a Washington "vetting."
Several Democratic officials familiar with the selection process said Wednesday that background checks have been under way for several weeks. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said individuals other than Gephardt and Edwards are under consideration, but they would not identify them -- nor say how many there were.
The candidates are known only by Kerry, a handful of advisers and a team of lawyers conducting background checks that are described as unusually thorough.
One Democrat mentioned as a favorite of several Kerry advisers, if not the candidate himself, is Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (search). But officials said it was unclear whether the campaign had begun a background check -- called "vetting" in Washington parlance.
Judging by the cases of Gephardt and Edwards, the selection process may be farther along than previously thought. Still, campaign officials said Kerry will not make his choice anytime soon.
"There is certainly a good argument for waiting -- to bring an element of excitement into the presidential convention in July. It's a strategy with a proven track record," said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist who does not work for Kerry.
"On the other hand, the White House has the luxury of sending Vice President Cheney out in the traditional role of attack dog while letting the president deliver a positive message, which forces Kerry to try to figure out who he's going to answer on a given day," Dunn said. "Kerry may want help."
Kerry aides declined to comment, citing their boss' desire to keep the search discreet.
Besides Vilsack, several top Democratic officeholders are preparing for a background check -- either because they've been told by the Kerry team to expect one or they hope to be subjected to the process. Vice presidential "vetting" is a status symbol in Washington, so much so that politicians have been known to claim they're on the list even if they're not.
Gephardt, 63, is the Missouri congressman and former House Minority leader who began the Democratic race as a favorite to win Iowa. He finished fourth behind Kerry, Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
Many Democratic strategists consider Gephardt the safest choice -- a man whose life and career has been open to scrutiny for years. He is a favorite of organized labor (search), a disciplined campaigner and his home state, with 11 electoral votes and bellwether reputation, is critical in the White House race.
But some Democrats worry that it will be hard arguing for change with a ticket headed by two creatures of Congress. Neither Kerry, the four-term Massachusetts senator, nor Gephardt is thought to be electrifying on the stump.
That isn't Edwards' problem. The 50-year-old freshman North Carolina senator spoke passionately about "two Americas" -- one for the rich and powerful, the other for everybody else.
He is also an able fund-raiser, tapping millions from fellow trial lawyers for his own campaign before asking them to donate to Kerry. But his lack of experience may be a drawback in an election cycle dominated by war and terrorism.
Kerry's vice presidential team is headed by Jim Johnson and includes some of the same lawyers or law firms that helped then-Vice President Al Gore choose a running mate in 2000. Kerry and Edwards were finalists. The job went to Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who also ran against Kerry this year.
Gore's three finalists were publicly known before his choice, which made Kerry uncomfortable. He has pledged to be more discreet.
With the utmost secrecy, Kerry's team has been reviewing financial records and other documents -- even interviewing family members -- of an undisclosed number of vice presidential prospects, officials said.
At least one of the candidates has been told no more information is needed, a signal that his background check may be complete, officials said.
Because of the secrecy surrounding Kerry's effort and the unreliability of officials vying for favor, it is impossible to tell who is being considered with Edwards and Gephardt or how long the search will take.
Vilsack would fit Kerry's needs if the Massachusetts senator seeks geographic balance. Associates of the presumptive nominee say he is fond of the Iowa governor and recognizes the importance of the Midwest.
Kerry could opt for a candidate from a swing state, such as Govs. Bill Richardson (search) of New Mexico or Ed Rendell (search) of Pennsylvania, or one of Florida's two Democratic senators, Bob Graham (search) or Bill Nelson (search).
He could try to balance his liberal record with a moderate such as Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (search) or (search) Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana.
With blacks complaining about the lack of minorities on his campaign team, Kerry might be tempted to choose a civil rights hero such as Rep. John Lewis (search), D-Ga.
As he raises questions about President Bush's foreign policy, Kerry might want a fellow Vietnam veteran such as former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey (search), a member of the Sept. 11 commission.