Sam Nunn and David Boren, two moderate-to-conservative former senators from the South, both endorsed Barack Obama today, furthering Obama’s effort to convince the media and Democratic superdelegates that his grip on the Democratic nomination is only tightening.
The endorsements are significant because Nunn and Boren had both publicly toyed with playing a role – as supporters or candidates – in a potential third party campaign this year.
But the endorsements may be significant in another way: On paper, at least, they are both potential running-mate material. Each hails from a red state, has extensive foreign policy experience, and represents a style and ideology that appeals to right-leaning independents and even some Republicans. Moreover, they both had clear interest in seeking national office back in their Senate days, but neither pulled the trigger.
The 69-year-old Nunn represented Georgia in the Senate for four terms, retiring after the 1996 election. He chaired the Armed Services Committee from 1987 until 1995 and earned bipartisan respect for his expertise on nuclear proliferation. On social issues, his record was mostly conservative; famously, he butted heads with the new Clinton administration in 1993 over its bid to lift the ban on gays in the military.
Nunn had two inviting openings to seek the presidency. In 1988, when a bloc of Southern states, dismayed by the nomination of an all-Northern-all-liberal ticket in 1984, scheduled their primaries for the same day in early March, hoping to tilt the balance of power within the party toward their region. Southern party leaders made it clear they’d back Nunn if he ran, but he ultimately declined, and a youthful (39 years old) Al Gore ultimately stepped in in his place. Nunn’s chances were potentially even better in 1992, when every big name in the party passed on what initially looked like a worthless nomination, given President George H.W. Bush’s popularity. The absence of heavy hitters allowed Bill Clinton to break away from a B-list field with a series of early, overpowering wins in the bloc of Southern state that voted in that year’s Super Tuesday.
Boren, 67, could also have run in both of those years. Elected to the Senate in 1978 after one term as Oklahoma’s governor, he, too, pursued a centrist path in the Senate, particularly on fiscal issues. But he also chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee, cultivating a solid reputation for his foreign policy knowledge. A political legacy – his father was a congressman for 5 terms in the 1930s and ’40s, it was widely assumed that Boren would ultimately seek the presidency, but like Nunn, he took a pass on the two most obvious openings, in ’88 and ’92. His snub of Hillary Clinton today, though, calls to mind the ’92 campaign, when he was the only Southern Senator to back Paul Tsongas over Bill Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
Both Nunn and Boren could provide the kind of “elder statesman” gravitas that it is commonly said Obama would need to balance his ticket. And they both seem to have interest. Nunn spoke about joining a third-party effort, potentially as a candidate, last year, and Boren seemed to openly encourage Michael Bloomberg to explore an independent bid – and talk that Boren might be his running-mate.
Both have drawbacks as well: They’ve largely been out of the public eye for more than a decade; does anyone really remember them? Boren has the additional liability of his abrupt exit from the Senate in the middle of his term in 1994. Supposedly, he did so to accept that presidency at the University of Oklahoma, but other possible explanations have persisted. To enter the national fray would invite scrutiny that Boren might not want. Between them, Nunn is the more likely V.P. pick.