WASHINGTON - Barack Obama and John McCain have begun taking quiet but purposeful steps toward choosing their running mates, fresh signs that the Democratic nomination fight is over and the presidential race is rapidly moving toward the Obama-McCain general election matchup.
McCain has a head start in the "veepstakes," with Obama still fighting off never-say-die Hillary Clinton.
The Republican candidate will be getting better acquainted with three potential picks during a holiday gathering at his home this weekend, while Obama's team is still in the early stages of compiling background information on possible running mates.
Former Fannie Mae CEO Jim Johnson is overseeing the early vetting for Obama, Democratic officials say, and that allows for a quick start. Fannie Mae, originally a U.S. government agency, is now a financial services company listed the New York Stock Exchange serving the American home mortgage industry.
Johnson won't be starting from scratch in his work for Obama, since he did the same job for Democratic nominees John Kerry in 2004 and Walter Mondale in 1984.
Many of the people Johnson checked for Kerry will be likely candidates for Obama's consideration. Those names included Clinton, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, anti-war Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Kerry's eventual choice, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.
Obama refused to acknowledge Johnson's role when The Associated Press asked the Illinois senator about it in the Capitol Thursday.
"I haven't hired him. He's not on retainer. I'm not paying him any money. He is a friend of mine. I know him," Obama said. Johnson has been a top fundraiser for his campaign. "I am not commenting on vice-presidential matters because I have not won this nomination."
The Democratic officials who revealed Johnson's role spoke on a condition of anonymity because Obama has insisted that the process be kept quiet.
McCain is hosting at least three Republicans mentioned as potential vice-presidential running mates at his Sedona, Ariz., home this weekend - Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
An aide said it's a social event with more than two dozen guests not meant for veep vetting. Still, the socializing is a prime opportunity for would-be running mates.
Before heading off to Arizona, Romney announced he was forming the "Free and Strong America" political action committee that will allow him to travel the country on political business and support like-minded candidates.
The vice-presidential speculation about McCain's possible choice has been going on for months, fuelled in part by the candidate himself.
Since sewing up the nomination in March, McCain has campaigned with prospective running mates, including Romney, Crist, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Last month, McCain told reporters he was in the "embryonic stages" of the search with a list of about 20 names.
At one point, McCain let slip that as he learns about the process of picking a running mate, he'd like to speak to A.B. Culvahouse, who has been involved in vice-presidential searches before and served as counsel to President Ronald Reagan from 1987-1989. Several Republicans close to the campaign say that while McCain and Campaign Manager Rick Davis are running the show, Culvahouse is involved in the process.
Obama is still engaged in an all-but-decided nomination campaign against Clinton, with three primaries left in Puerto Rico, South Dakota and Montana. The voting ends June 3.
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said Obama's vice-presidential selection process "is clearly premature in that he is not yet the nominee."
He also said the Clinton campaign didn't have a similar process under way and there had been no discussions with the Obama people about her becoming the Illinois senator's No. 2.
Some in the party are calling for Obama to pick Clinton, but others say that couldn't work after their long and heated campaign against each other.
The running mate search is one of many steps the Obama campaign is taking toward the general election, with just 61 delegates needed to clinch the nomination according to the latest Associated Press count. Obama has 1,965 delegates to Clinton's 1,780, with 2,026 required to secure the party's nod under Democratic National Committee rules.