ORLANDO, Fla. – Sen. John Kerry named prominent Washington Democrat James Johnson to start vetting potential running mates, moving quickly Wednesday to the next stage of his presidential campaign as the de facto Democratic Party nominee.
Johnson, a former chairman and CEO of mortgage lender Fannie Mae, a former aide to ex-Vice President and ex-Sen. Walter Mondale and a veteran Democratic Party insider, will assemble a team that’ll reach out to possible vice presidential candidates and scrutinize their backgrounds.
While the campaign released no names of potential candidates, speculation in Democratic circles has focused variously on Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.
If Kerry has a favorite, he has kept it secret, and is likely to for months to sustain a sense of drama before the Democratic National Convention, which starts July 26 in Boston.
The swift move of naming Johnson was part of Kerry’s strategy to sustain momentum after his nine-state primary win Tuesday.
He also focused on building his campaign treasury.
He’s raised about $10 million since Jan. 1, and has taken in nearly $1 million over the Internet since the polls closed Tuesday night, campaign aides said.
Kerry also met with about 20 top fund raisers in Orlando.
He made Florida the first stop on his victory lap, highlighting the state’s power as a symbol of Democratic anger toward President Bush, who won Florida by 537 votes in a recount in 2000.
His visit acknowledged that the Sunshine State remains a battleground for November.
“When the returns came in, I stood up in there last night and I knew I was coming to Orlando,” Kerry said, his voice cracking from campaign strain.
“My first instinct was to say to everybody, `Guess where I’m going; I’m going to Disney World.’ But I resisted the temptation.”
Graham, who mounted a failed presidential bid last year, traveled with Kerry from Washington to Orlando, as did Florida’s junior senator, Bill Nelson, also a Democrat.
Aboard Kerry’s plane, Graham did nothing to dampen the vice-presidential speculation.
He’s been the most popular Democrat in Florida for a quarter-century, twice winning election as governor and three times to the Senate.
“It is so important that George Bush not have another four years, I would do anything within reason – I would not sacrifice one of my grandchildren – to elect John Kerry,” Graham said.
Kerry held a town hall-style meeting with about 300 Democrats in a theater in Orlando, taking questions from voters in a manner reminiscent of the give and take that helped revive his campaign in Iowa.
As has become common in his events, Kerry introduced a former member of his gunboat crew in the Vietnam War, Bill Zaldonis, who lives about 30 miles from Orlando.
Kerry was to spend Thursday in his hometown of Boston before returning to the campaign trail with visits to Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, all of which, along with Florida, have Democratic primaries next week.
The contests now are merely milestones for him to pass as he accumulates delegates to secure the nomination.
Republicans kept up attacks on Kerry, with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., weighing in Wednesday against the senator’s plan to eliminate Bush-era tax cuts for taxpayers with incomes above $200,000.
“Most of Senator Kerry’s tax increases are aimed at small-business owners, those people who create the most jobs in this country,” Hastert said.
In selecting Johnson, Kerry picked a Democrat who’s at the nexus of business and politics in Washington.
In addition to being a former chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae, he’s chairman emeritus of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and a former chairman and honorary trustee of The Brookings Institution, two highly regarded Washington institutions.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.