Republican strategist Karl Rove called Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) late last week and urged him to contact Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to withdraw his name from vice presidential consideration, according to three sources familiar with the conversation.
Lieberman dismissed the request, these sources agreed.
Lieberman “laughed at the suggestion and certainly did not call [McCain] on it,” said one source familiar with the details.
“Rove called Lieberman,” recounted a second source. “Lieberman told him he would not make that call.”
Rove did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rove, President Bush’s former top campaign adviser and arguably the most prominent political operative of the past generation, has no formal role in McCain’s campaign. But he knows much of the Arizona senator’s high command and has been offering informal advice, both over the phone and in his position as a Fox News analyst, since McCain wrapped up the GOP nomination.
His decision to wade into the vice presidential selection process could provide Democrats fresh ammunition to tie McCain to the polarizing Bush.
It is also chafing some Lieberman allies and others wary of the selection of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“Rove is pushing Romney so aggressively some folks are beginning to wonder what's going on,” grumbled one veteran Republican strategist.
From his perch on Fox, Rove has touted McCain’s fierce primary rival as strong vice presidential material.
“Romney is already vetted by the media, has strong executive experience both in business and in government, has an interesting story to tell with saving the U.S. Olympics, and also helps McCain deal with the economy, because he can speak to the economy with a fluency that McCain doesn’t have,” Rove said on “Fox News Sunday” in June.
The sources spoke about Rove’s involvement after Robert Novak, writing his first column since being diagnosed with brain cancer, reported Wednesday that McCain and some of his close associates would like to tap Lieberman for the number two slot but that putting an abortion-rights-supporting former Democrat on the Republican ticket was likely to be unrealistic.
The column said Lieberman had made that clear to McCain personally at the behest of a “close friend,” but a Lieberman source called that “totally and absolutely false.”
Reached by phone, Novak would say only: "I don't talk about my sources."
The maneuvering comes just days before McCain is to publicly unveil his pick Friday at a large rally in Ohio. A senior campaign official said Wednesday that McCain has settled on his ticket mate and that the person is to be notified Thursday.
Lieberman has his advocates, especially among those who believe McCain needs to make a transformative pick to help disassociate himself from Bush and the GOP, but most establishment Republicans believe tapping the Connecticut senator would blow up next week’s Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., and create major problems for McCain and the conservative base of the party this fall.
A source close to Lieberman said: "If it's Lieberman, none of us know about it" — meaning staff, aides and friends. The source said Lieberman is currently on vacation on Long Island, N.Y.
Robert Novak: Lieberman told McCain to choose someone else
Robert D. Novak, who recently announced his retirement due to serious health problems, has decided to write occasional columns.
Reports of strong support within John McCain's presidential campaign for Independent Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman as the Republican candidate for vice president are not a fairy tale. Influential McCain backers, plus McCain himself, would pick the pro-choice liberal from Connecticut if they thought they could get away with it.
But they can't get away with it -- and this has been made clear to McCain by none other than Joe Lieberman himself.
Lieberman surely doesn't know that much about Republican politics, but he has close Republican friends. One of them prevailed on Lieberman to tell McCain that a McCain-Lieberman ticket would be a disaster for all concerned, and especially for the GOP.
Actually, Lieberman is a heroic figure among Republicans for having risked his Senate seat to support President George W. Bush's war policy. But aside from the war, he votes the straight liberal line, including pro-choice on abortion. Lieberman's Republican friend told him that the Republicans would leave Minnesota in a state of disarray with a McCain-Lieberman ticket, alienating social conservatives who now make up the core of Republican voters.
At the heart of the desire for Lieberman as running mate is a basic strategic disagreement between the Bush and McCain high commands.
McCain's top strategists argue that the Bush coalition that won the last two presidential elections is dead and must be replaced by a new one that extends to the left, as Lieberman would.
Bush strategists disagree, asserting that McCain is getting around 90 percent of the old Bush vote and can win the election with a few moderates added in.
The Republican operative who urged Lieberman to dissuade McCain from picking him believes that there is still a very useful role for the maverick Democrat in this campaign: as McCain's secretary of state. While an announcement in St. Paul of Lieberman as vice president would bring groans from the assembled Republicans, placing him at the State Department would evoke a standing ovation.
At this writing, nobody knows McCain's choice. He is keeping the selection process secret, and his closest aides are in the dark. Could he still name Lieberman after being told by Lieberman himself that it is not a good idea? Nobody absolutely rules it out.
Selecting a vice presidential nominee from the opposite party has not fared well, partly because the two most prominent such selections quickly succeeded to a vacant presidency.
In 1864, Republican President Abraham Lincoln picked a pro-Union Democrat, Andrew Johnson, as his running mate. Johnson clashed continuously with the Republican Congress and became the first President to be impeached. In 1840, Whig President William Henry Harrison selected Democrat John Tyler for vice president. Tyler became president upon Harrison's death in 1841. Tyler found himself surrounded by old political enemies in a Whig Cabinet.
Those problems might be less serious for Lieberman should he quickly succeed to the presidency, however. He is on intimate terms with the McCain inner circle, especially Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Still, Republicans assembling in St. Paul have their fingers crossed that McCain will not press his luck by naming Lieberman as his running mate.