Washington is buzzing with news that John McCain is set to announce his vice-presidential selection soon. Mitt Romney is the odds-on favorite. Bobby Jindal, Timothy Pawlenty, and a host of others are also rumored to be in the Republican veep race.
Despite the apparent closeness of this presidential contest, one does not have to be either a rocket scientist or a political scientist to realize that McCain faces long odds. Intuition, academic forecasts, and even political futures markets all suggest that the election is Obama's to lose. And this tells us something important about the vice-presidential candidate McCain should select. His steep challenge dictates a very unorthodox pick.
McCain needs to create buzz for his campaign and give voters a reason not to toss the Republicans out of the White House. He should avoid the dubious conventional wisdom of picking someone with electoral votes in mind. McCain needs a bold, unconventional pick like Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Selecting Jindal certainly has advantages. He would add much-needed youth, diversity and vigor to the McCain camp. His selection would also go a long way toward exciting the conservative base that has long been wary of McCain. And it would help the Republican nominee's own attempt to be seen as an agent of change by picking a new face, and an Indian-American at that.
However, it is Palin who could best ruin the predictions of the pundits, traders and forecasters.
Palin, the 44-year-old mother of five and popular governor of Alaska, would add a lot to a Republican ticket that will face an uphill battle no matter who is picked. First, the attractive young governor, like Jindal, would provide much-needed energy and youth to a ticket whose main candidate is frequently on the receiving end of "he's so old" jokes. McCain should remember that this did not work out too well for Bob Dole, another senior war hero.
Second, Palin would give Hillary-voters frustrated by their candidate's loss and still unsure about Obama a reason to shift over to McCain. And there is no doubt this former Miss Alaska pageant contestant would give red-blooded men in purple states like Ohio a reason to watch the vice-presidential debates.
Third, Palin is as far from a Washington insider as you can get, given she hails from Alaska and is a new face in Republican politics, untainted by any association with the Bush clan or the big-spending congressional Republicans.
Fourth, and critically, given the price of oil, Palin can help McCain focus on energy security, an issue that could be Obama's Achilles' heel -- if the Republicans could overcome McCain's opposition to things like drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The environment might be wildly popular on the coasts, but in the middle where this race will be won, a candidate who could credibly sell a plan for lower prices at the pump will move votes.
But most important, Palin could do something few Republicans seem interested in or able to do these days: Help fuse the two pillars of the Reagan Revolution, traditional conservatives and libertarian Republicans.
Palin can win the hearts of conservatives, given her strong pro-life views -- views that were backed up with action this year when she gave birth to a son with Down's syndrome. It would probably also help with these folks that her oldest son recently enlisted in the Army. And she can excite libertarian Republicans, given her fiscal conservatism as governor as well as her reputation for anti-corruption, love of guns and the outdoor life, and moderation on social issues other than abortion.
In short, Palin will provide McCain the surge he needs to win his last battle.
William Ruger is a political scientist at Texas State University and holds a Ph.D. in politics from Brandeis University.