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Second spot. Second fiddle. Second banana. It isn’t easy being the vice presidential candidate.


You get to campaign in the smaller towns in the smaller states. You get to raise money for candidates who trail by 15 points. You’re the opening act the night the Big Guy accepts the nomination.


But someone gets the job, and right now Barack Obama and John McCain are scanning field reports, memos and newspaper articles to find that special someone. Announcements could come any day.


It’s a big decision, for a job once compared to a pitcher of warm spit.


“I think it’s a huge deal,” said Joel Goldstein, a Saint Louis University expert on the vice presidency, “in part because the person is going to be a heartbeat away. He’s our national insurance policy.”


Not only is the vice president a heartbeat away, he or she is the only other person in the executive branch in position to view the challenges facing the country from the same vantage point as the president.


“If you’ve got somebody of ability and strength who can offer the president advice and who’s unencumbered by any particular responsibility ... it’s a great plus to the government,” Goldstein said.


A good pick can boost a candidacy. A lousy one can bog down a campaign for weeks.


So what goes into the vice presidential pick? Here’s a look:


WHAT ARE THE RULES FOR PICKING A VEEP?


None, really. Some think a second-spot-on-the-ticket should at least bring the nominee’s home state, but even that doesn’t always happen.


Goldstein: “I think the most important thing is this person must be a plausible president, somebody people could see being in the Oval Office.”


Help with the home state? Overblown. In 1960, Lyndon Johnson was picked to help John F. Kennedy in Texas, and he did; 28 years later Lloyd Bentsen couldn’t do the same for Michael Dukakis.


DOES THE CHOICE MAKE A DIFFERENCE?


Perhaps not. “People vote for president, not vice president,” former White House man Stu Spencer told Al Hunt of Bloomberg.com in May. Exhibit A? Dan Quayle didn’t hurt George H.W. Bush all that much in 1988.


Yes, LBJ helped Kennedy. And Bill Clinton wallowed in third place in most polls in 1992 until he chose Al Gore.


But Joe Lieberman, Geraldine Ferraro, John Sparkman? Not much.


The best guess: The veep pick helps voters understand a presidential nominee’s thinking and can sometimes help in a close race.


THIS WEEK’S TOP PROSPECTS?


McCain: Mitt Romney, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.


Obama: Sen. Joe Biden, Sen. Evan Bayh, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine.


LONGSHOTS?


Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius for Obama? Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for McCain?


Sebelius refuses to say if she’s been vetted by the Obama folks, but her name’s on the short list. And everyone is talking about her.


Negatives: She probably wouldn’t help carry Kansas; she doesn’t bring foreign policy experience; and picking her might make a few million Hillary Clinton supporters angry.


Palin pops up on several Republican lists, even though she’s less known than Sebelius. She might help with women voters; she’s reliably conservative on social issues - and supports drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in her home state.


Negatives: McCain opposes drilling in ANWR.


WHAT ABOUT TIMING?


Presidential nominees used to wait until their party’s convention to make the official announcement.


Bob Dole, the 1976 pickee: “They didn’t even know they needed a vice president until one o’clock in the morning (at the Muehlebach) because Reagan and Ford were still battling it out.”


Then the phone rang.


Last-minute decisions have backfired: George McGovern’s pick of Tom Eagleton and George H.W. Bush’s Dan Quayle choice were later considered mistakes.


That’s convinced recent candidates to announce their picks early, a few days weeks before the party convention.


Bob Dole, the 1996 picker: “Do you save it, and have a little excitement at the convention…or do you get it out there early and give a little sizzle to the campaign? We thought the latter.”


WORST MODERN VEEP PICK?


Republicans: Spiro Agnew, who couldn’t even bring Maryland to Nixon, then resigned in disgrace before the next election.


Democrats: Tom Eagleton, who lasted less than a month before giving way to Sargent Shriver.


BEST?


Republicans: Dick Cheney, 2000. It may not look good now but he gave George W. Bush gravitas.


Democrats: Walter Mondale, 1976. Polls afterward showed Mondale boosted Carter three points in a close race.


ANY HISTORIC SECOND-BANANA LOCALS?


Yep.


Francis Preston Blair Jr., a Missouri legislator and congressman, held down the Democrats’ second spot in 1868. That may seem a bit strange, since Blair opposed slavery, supported Abraham Lincoln, and fought for the Union during the Civil War - all Republican positions.


But he split with the Radical Republicans and ran with Democrat Horatio Seymour. He lost.


Four years later, Benjamin Gratz Brown - a Missouri legislator, governor, and senator - held down the second spot for Horace Greeley, the newspaperman. They lost, too.


Kansan Charles Curtis was elected second fiddle to Herbert Hoover in 1928 (“Curtis was never close to…Hoover and played no significant role in his administration,” says the Senate’s website). Hoover-Curtis lost to Roosevelt-Garner in 1932.


Other area veep picks: Harry Truman, 1944; Tom Eagleton (for a few weeks) 1972; Bob Dole, 1976.


HOW MANY VICE PRESIDENTS HAVE BECOME PRESIDENT?


Fourteen, starting with John Adams - who followed the Father of Our Country - to George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan’s second-in-command.


But modern veeps who later want their party’s presidential nomination almost always get it: Think Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Gerald Ford, Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore.


WHEN WILL OBAMA AND MCCAIN PICK?


The start of the Olympics Friday could force candidates to pick pre-Games or wait until they’re over.


Writes Mike Barone in U.S. News and World Report: “The way we pick vice presidents is crazy.”

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