On July 14, 1996, former New York Congressman Jack Kemp appeared on CNN's "Inside Politics," where he criticized bluntly the campaign being run by Bob Dole, who was failing in his effort to make competitive the general election race against President Clinton.
"We've been on defense -- there's no doubt about it," Kemp said of the Republican nominee’s campaign.
For good measure, he added that “hoping for the collapse of the Clinton administration” was “no way to run for president.”
As a Dole surrogate, Kemp’s comments could scarcely have been more off-message.
Furthermore, Kemp’s history of clashes with the Kansas senator over both policy and personality appeared to eliminate any chance that Dole might consider naming the former football star to the Republican ticket.
The VP possibility seemed so remote at the time of the CNN interview that Wolf Blitzer did not even ask Kemp about it and instead inquired about Colin Powell becoming Dole’s pick and whether Kemp might be interested in a Cabinet position.
No one watching could have predicted the events of less than a month later, when Kemp arrived in Russell, Kan., by chartered jet and accompanied by a Secret Service contingent -- to be introduced to the nation as Bob Dole’s running mate.
The surprising vice-presidential choice in 1996 was far from unique in modern Republican presidential politics.
While every eventual GOP nominee in the last five non-incumbent presidential cycles began the race as a favorite, the same cannot be said of their VP picks, all of whom were initially regarded inside the Beltway echo chamber either as blips on the political radar or not on the screen at all.
After Vice President George H.W. Bush wrapped up the Republican nomination in 1988, his aides quietly circulated a list of running-mate possibilities, which included both Dole and Kemp among the favorites.
According to a Washington Post story in July of that year, former President Richard Nixon had offered Bush some advice: make the “short list” appear to be as long as possible.
"Once you get it down to two or three people," Nixon told him, "see to it that a dozen or so names get out in the press. It'll be a sop to everyone on the list, and it will keep the press off the trail."
The eventual pick that year, Dan Quayle, scarcely got any ink as a serious possibility until just before Bush added him to the ticket on the second day of the Republican National Convention in New Orleans.
Twelve years later and one cycle removed from Dole’s surprise selection of Kemp, Texas Gov. George W. Bush became the latest GOP presidential nominee to go with a running mate who had previously made none of the early lists of supposedly top-tier contenders for the job.
Dick Cheney, who helmed Bush’s vice-presidential search committee, had not been on the national media’s radar as a possibility in his own right until Cheney changed his voter registration from Texas to Wyoming just days before he was selected in late July 2000 -- a move that was understood to have been done for Constitutional considerations. (The 12th Amendment prohibits electors from casting votes for someone from their state for both president and vice president.)
Throughout the summer of 2008, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty were the two names most frequently mentioned at the top of the public lists of contenders to become John McCain’s running mate.
As the speculation game went into overdrive -- with a major assist from the new media environment and the intense public interest in all facets of that year’s campaign -- McCain aides whispered to two well-known journalists false information about the timing and identity of the standard-bearer’s VP pick, which helped to throw the rest of the pack off the scent.
Though a handful of conservative opinion-makers touted Sarah Palin, and the Alaska governor was included on some news outlets’ lists, her ultimate selection was widely considered the most surprising choice in modern American political history.
CBS News political director John Dickerson, who covered his first presidential campaign as an embedded reporter in 1996, said that the VP guessing game is always replete with pure speculation and serves mainly to fill a vacuum during the summer doldrums, when there is a relative scarcity of major campaign news.
“Vice presidential picks are important because they tell us something about how the guy at the top of the ticket thinks and how he might run his presidency,” Dickerson said. “None of that can be adequately evaluated by talking about whether Carroll Campbell is going to be Bob Dole’s VP pick. From a news standpoint, it’s one of the least nourishing pieces you can do. It tells us nothing.”
CNN’s John King, who has broken the news of at least three vice-presidential picks over the last 24 years, said that the changing nature of the news business has encouraged campaigns to facilitate “pretend lists” to reporters who are eager for even the smallest nibble.
“Especially in the Romney campaign, where so few people really know, you’ll see these stories that say who senior advisers like,” King said. “OK, that’s great, but they’re not making the decision. The stories are informative in that they tell you that Pawlenty or Portman’s held in high regard, but they don’t tell you who Beth Myers and Romney are thinking about.”
Members of Romney’s Boston-based staff often marvel privately at the extent to which the selection process -- being led by Myers, his longtime confidante -- has been kept secret from almost everyone inside the campaign, never mind those on the outside.
“It’s the one thing that goes on in this building that I know absolutely nothing about,” one Romney aide said. “They have that thing on lockdown.”