Graham -- McCain traveling buddy or VP contender?

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. John McCain embarked Saturday on an international journey that will show him looking presidential with world leaders in Europe and the Middle East.

As he accompanies his friend abroad, will U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham be auditioning for a prominent post in a McCain administration?

Perish the thought, Graham said before leaving the country.

"This will be the 19th (foreign) trip I've taken with Senator McCain since (2003)," said Graham, who has represented S.C. in the U.S. Senate since 2002. "He's one of my closest friends in the Senate. I think I am someone who is a sounding board for him.

"I've been intricately involved in his campaign -- a confidant, if you will. I very much admire him. He's got a lot of courage. My relationship with John is not dependent on a position."

McCain's trip to Iraq, France and England is officially billed as a "CODEL" -- a congressional delegation of lawmakers traveling abroad on fact-finding missions.

But the trip is far from routine.

McCain's sojourn has drawn criticism as a taxpayer-funded campaign boost that will enable the presumptive Republican White House nominee to command the world stage while Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama tangle back home to head the Democratic ticket.

"He's been involved in every major national security and international policy issue in the last 20 years," said Charlie Black, a senior McCain adviser. "In that role, he knows most of the leaders of our major allies in the world. You have relatively new leaders in England and France, and he's going to meet them."

But the only two lawmakers going with McCain -- Graham and U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman -- have been the two strongest supporters of his White House bid in Congress.

Graham, a Seneca Republican, and Lieberman, who now calls himself an "Independent Democrat" from Connecticut, have both been cited in recent weeks as possible McCain running mates.

So, too, have Gov. Mark Sanford and U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

South Carolina, in fact, appears to be the only state offering up three different politicians named on various published and broadcast lists of vice-presidential choices for the Arizona senator.

"It just goes to show that South Carolina has some very fine public servants," said Black, who was born in Charlotte and grew up in Wilmington, N.C. "But McCain's not talking to anybody about future jobs at this point."

The question of who McCain will select as his running mate has added importance because of his age: If elected, he would be the oldest president -- 72 -- at his initial inauguration.

McCain said Wednesday that he was starting to assemble a search team to explore VP options. Vice President Dick Cheney led such a team for President Bush in 2000 -- then got the post himself.

Graham, a first-term Seneca Republican, thinks it would be foolish for McCain to pick a running mate from South Carolina.

"I am not bashful, and I think I've helped John," Graham said. "But just objectively, I don't see any value I add to the ticket -- or anybody else from South Carolina, for that matter. We're going to win South Carolina. If we don't, we've got a problem."

Herb Asher, an Ohio State University political science professor, said Graham would make the most sense among the three S.C. Republicans.

"A guy like Lindsey Graham is better known nationally and has broader appeal," Asher said.

Asher added, though, that choosing a running mate from South Carolina -- or another Deep South state -- could be perceived as a sign of political weakness in McCain's general election campaign.

"Presumably, he would be shoring up what should be a fairly solid Republican base," Asher said. "John McCain should be looking for someone from the Great Lakes states or another battleground region."

More likely choices for McCain, Asher said, would be Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

A search of the Lexis-Nexis data base of thousands of U.S. news sources -- combining McCain's name with "running mate" and one of the three S.C. politicians yields these results: Sanford leads with 322 cites, followed by Graham with 139 mentions and DeMint with 69 hits.

Joel Sawyer, a Sanford spokesman, said the governor finds the interest in him "very flattering" but views it as pure speculation.

"It's nothing that he has been focusing any of his time and energy on," Sawyer said.

DeMint, a first-term Greenville Republican, said it's unlikely McCain would choose him because he was a national co-chairman of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's primary campaign against McCain.

Jake Easterwood, a retired truck driver and Vietnam War veteran who voted for Romney in the primary, now backs McCain.

Easterwood, who's from Hopkins, thinks it would be bad for Republicans to have two senators on the national ticket, but he'd like to see Sanford join McCain if it's not Romney.

"He would be good for the ticket," Easterwood said of Sanford. "He would bring fiscal conservatism, and once you've been governor of a state, you have an idea of the executive skills it takes to be president or vice president."