WASHINGTON – John Kerry (search) sought to curb rampant speculation Thursday about his vice presidential search, taking issue with leaks from campaign aides "who don't know what they're talking about."
"I'm the only person who knows when I will" announce a running mate "or what even direction I might take. And I intend to keep it that way," the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said as fresh clues about his intentions emerged.
Kerry, a four-term senator with a history of publicly chastising his staff, smiled and chuckled as he recalled that he "read with amusement about aides who don't know what they're talking about with respect to my schedule" for announcing a running mate. A day earlier, his meeting with Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) became public despite efforts to keep it under wraps.
Gephardt, a former House minority leader from Missouri, is believed to be a top candidate for the Kerry ticket. A Democratic official familiar with the discussion said Kerry and Gephardt talked for more than 90 minutes about the state of the race, their families and the qualities Kerry seeks in a running mate.
Even as Kerry clamped down against leaks, a second Democratic official said the senator's team was promoting the prospects of Gephardt and a handful of other "safe" picks.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering Kerry, said the campaign is feeling confident enough about the senator's chances against President Bush that there may no longer be a need to nominate a little-known or unconventional candidate just to spark a Kerry comeback.
Polls show the race is a dead heat. And the worst fears of Kerry aides — fund-raising problems and a lack of party unity — never materialized. Thus, a top campaign priority is to nominate somebody whose personal background and performance on the campaign trail will not detract from Kerry's post-convention message, the official said.
The official was relating recent conversations with two senior Kerry advisers, one of whom talks almost daily with the candidate about his running-mate search. He said both advisers mentioned Gephardt and Sens. John Edwards (search) of North Carolina and Evan Bayh (search) of Indiana as the type of "safe" candidates getting strong consideration.
The official's recollection was confirmed with one of the Kerry advisers — and none of the sources claimed to be speaking for the candidate. It was unknown whether Kerry agreed with the push for a "safe" pick.
Adding to the confusion are Democrats inside and outside the campaign who are privately urging Kerry's selection team to pick somebody with foreign policy credentials, such as former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and even a Republican like former Defense Secretary William Cohen.
Another party official closely aligned with the campaign said Sen. Bob Graham discussed the vice presidency with Kerry two weeks ago in West Palm Beach, Fla. Kerry was in Graham's home state for an anti-terorrism address.
It was not known whether any of these candidates were on Kerry's short list — or even whether there was a short list.
Kerry must make his selection before the Democratic National Convention, which begins July 26, and is not expected to complete the search this month.
Until he announces his pick, the top-secret process will draw an avalanche of speculation — most of it ill-informed, because neither Kerry or his tiny inner circle have lifted the veil on his deliberations.
"I'm on the short list!" joked Al Sharpton, a former primary season rival who flew with Kerry to a campaign event in Detroit on Thursday.
Turning serious, Sharpton said he was offering Kerry advice.
In an interview with American Urban Radio Networks, Kerry took exception with aides anonymously making predictions about his announcement plans.
"Nobody on my staff knows anything about any date." He also declined to confirm the Gephardt meeting.
"I'm the only one who knows what I was doing yesterday," the Massachusetts senator said.
In Detroit, Kerry said there's a reason for his discretion.
"I have great respect for the interest that obviously exists with respect to the choice that I'm privileged to make. And it is a privilege. And I want to take it seriously and respect it in that way," Kerry told reporters.