Washington John Kerry has begun interviewing potential running mates, including Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri who spent about 90 minutes Wednesday in the Democratic presidential candidate's Capitol office.
Democratic officials familiar with the discussions said Kerry planned to meet with other candidates in the next several days. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the Massachusetts senator has insisted that his deliberations remain secret until he announces a nominee in July.
"I'm happy to do it if he wants me to do it," Gephardt told The Associated Press before the meeting. "I'm equally happy to not do it, and just help in other ways."
The Gephardt meeting came as another candidate, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, made the rounds in Washington but refused to say whether he was meeting with Kerry. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, a Democrat touted by some party officials as a potential candidate, also was in Washington with Vilsack. She said she was not meeting with Kerry.
Officials said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida is among the Democrats expected to meet with Kerry in the coming days. The Kerry-Gephardt meeting sparked a raft of running mate rumors, a ritual in presidential politics.
Kerry and his advisers aren't talking about the selection process, so everybody else is. People outside Kerry's inner circle are dropping the names of Vilsack, Sebelius and dozens of other politicians from both parties. Pundits compare the ritual with a political mating dance or high drama, with every public event a potential audition as Kerry eyes his future partner from afar.
"Against the backdrop of the presidential campaign, you always have this subtle, sometimes overt, unofficial campaign for vice president," said Michael Feldman, an aide to former Vice President Al Gore.
The last major candidate to bow to Kerry in the primary, Edwards has urged his fund-raising team to help fill Kerry's coffers. The Southerner has traveled the country on behalf of the nominee-in-waiting, accusing Republicans of creating two Americas -- one for the wealthy and one for everyone else.
A recent Associated Press poll conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs suggested that a majority of registered voters want Kerry to pick Edwards.
Sebelius' father, John Gilligan, was Ohio governor from 1971 to 1975. Sebelius said he lost re-election in part because voters thought he was flirting with the presidency instead of focusing on their interests.
Determined not to make the same mistake, the 56-year-old freshman governor said she planned to remain in Kansas -- a standard nondenial denial of vice presidential interest -- but says there's a bright side to speculation about Kerry putting a woman on his ticket.
"To have a number of women in the mix over and over again is good news," she told The AP.