By Steve Holland
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland (Reuters) – U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain said on Wednesday he has begun compiling a list of potential vice presidential running mates as he visited the U.S. Naval Academy on a nostalgia tour.
McCain, 71, talking by telephone to radio talk show host Don Imus, joked that his vice presidential decision was of added importance. â€œIâ€™m aware of the enhanced importance of this issue given my age,â€ he quipped.
The Arizona senator said he and his campaign staff had just started putting together a list of names and having them vetted. He gave no clue as to who might be on the list but there has been speculation about a number of Republican politicians, such as Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
â€œIâ€™d like to get it done as early as possible,â€ McCain said.
He would like to have his running mate set before the Republican convention in Minneapolis in early September that will nominate McCain as the partyâ€™s choice to face either Democratic Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in the November election.
McCain was in Annapolis to review his adventuresome four years here prior to training as a fighter pilot and heading to Vietnam, where his plane was shot down and he spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war.
He is on a tour of places important to developing his character as he fights for media coverage dominated by the extended Democratic battle between Obama and Clinton.
He started the day giving the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag at crowded Chick and Ruthâ€™s Delly restaurant, a political hangout in the Maryland capital of Annapolis where patriotism ranks as high as the crab omelets served up by fast-moving waiters.
McCain has spent all week talking about his transformation from bad boy to war hero and there will be more of the same at Annapolis. He graduated fifth from the bottom of his class.
â€œIn truth, my four years at the Naval Academy were not notable for exemplary virtue or academic achievement but, rather, for the impressive catalogue of demerits I managed to accumulate,â€ McCain told a small crowd of invited guest at the academy football stadium. A brisk, chilly wind had U.S. flags behind him flapping.
Asked by Imus what his father and grandfather would have thought of his Naval Academy tenure, McCain said it would not have mattered.
â€œNeither of them were accorded any special honors upon their graduation,â€ he said.
A Greater Cause
Turning to the future, McCain said Americans are cynical about their country and their idea of liberty is â€œthe right to choose among competing brands of designer coffee.â€
McCain, who would be the oldest person ever elected to a first presidential term, said Americans need to take up a cause greater than themselves — join the military, help feed the hungry, seek public office.
â€œIf you find faults with our country, make it a better one,â€ he said.
McCain said some are cynical because they have suffered economic dislocations while others profit as never before, and in part, it is a â€œreaction to governmentâ€™s mistakes and incompetence and to the selfishness of some public figures.â€
He came close to calling some Americans spoiled, saying they are cynical because their wealth and opportunity have â€œled them to the mistaken conclusion that America, and the liberties its system of government is intended to protect, just arenâ€™t important to the quality of their lives.â€
(Editing by Bill Trott and Jackie Frank)