AUSTIN, Texas - Vanquished primary rival John McCain has told a prominent Republican governor and mutual friend of George W. Bush that he would be willing to serve as the Texan's running mate, sources said Thursday.
McCain, who has previously ruled out a vice presidential bid, signaled his change of heart in a telephone conversation this week with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge - who himself has figured prominently in the running mate sweepstakes. Three sources who had been briefed on the conversation spoke on condition of anonymity.
Bush aides were cool to the prospect of putting McCain on the ticket. The governor himself has refused to discuss who is under consideration as he prepares for the July 31 opening of the GOP convention in Philadelphia.
In an indication that the Texas governor is close to a decision, Republican sources said the governor's top adviser contacted several prominent Republicans - McCain, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel among them - and asked for their weekend telephone numbers.
McCain, who drew primary votes from independents and some Democrats in his bid for the nomination, has support from the head of the House GOP campaign committee, according to party sources. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., urged the Arizona senator be given consideration in a phone call earlier this week with Dick Cheney, the man in charge of Bush's search.
At the same time, a number of House Republicans, concerned about the possible loss of their majority this fall, were circulating a letter to be sent to the Bush campaign urging McCain's selection.
The names that figure most prominently in the speculation include Cheney himself; Rep. John Kasich; Sens. Fred Thompson and Bill Frist; Gov. George Pataki of New York and Govs. Keating and Ridge.
McCain advisers said Thursday night that, despite the developments, they don't think the senator will get the nod because of animosity remaining from his bitter campaign against Bush.
Sources close to Bush said this week they would be stunned if their boss turned to the maverick senator. However, even his most trusted allies have been largely frozen out of the selection process, thus none of the Bush sources could speak with any authority.
In a Tuesday telephone call to McCain, Ridge urged his longtime friend and fellow Vietnam War veteran to take the job if offered. Sources said Ridge made it clear he was not acting on behalf of Bush or any other party.
''You know me, Tommy. If the governor asked me, you know I would serve. I would prefer not to, but I'll serve,'' McCain told Ridge, according to three sources who independently confirmed the quote.
McCain advisers said the comment is a subtle but important shift in his remarks regarding the vice presidency - if for no other reason than the timing.
The Arizona senator declined to talk about his conversation with Ridge, but told CNN he doesn't expect to be picked. ''It's a hypothetical because I don't believe I'm in the process. But if Governor Bush called I'd certainly like to talk to him about the weather and how things are going and how good a campaign he's running.''
Two of the sources said Ridge informed a senior Bush adviser about McCain's remarks, which received a ''cool reception.'' However, that telephone call could not be confirmed by Bush officials.
Bush said in an interview on CNN's ''Larry King Live'' that he wants to be able to work closely with his vice presidential choice.
''There's been some great examples of people being able to work together in recent history,'' Bush said on the interview that was airing Thursday night. ''I think President Clinton and Vice President Gore had a good relationship. I know my dad and President Reagan did. And Vice President Quayle and my dad did. ... It all started really with Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale redefining the relationship ...''
Bush said he doesn't want to pick somebody and ''use him just for an election vehicle.''
McCain has reportedly expressed similar openess to the vice presidency during private meetings in the past, only to back away from them once the remarks become public. However, McCain raised the stakes higher than ever by opening himself to the job to a fellow candidate, a close friend of Bush's, days before the Texan makes his choice.
The development also puts Bush in a tough position. He carefully maneuvered in the spring to get McCain to publicly rule out his candidacy so that the Arizona senator's supporters would not think Bush was snubbing him. With this latest signal, Bush is almost certain to face questions about McCain if he bypasses the candidate who won seven primaries and drew hundreds of thousands of new voters to the GOP.
The McCain-Ridge conversation is notable for another reason: It reflects the belief among GOP officials that Ridge has fallen out of contention. Though he comes from a key state, his feud with the Catholic church over his abortion-rights position apparently has hurt Ridge's candidacy. Ridge is a Catholic.
The development is also likely to increase speculation surrounding Keating, who is viewed by many in his party as a low-risk choice. He is a Catholic who opposes abortion, a former FBI agent with experience in Washington at two federal agencies.
He gained national attention for his leadership after the Oklahoma City bombing.
''I'm not holding my breath,'' the Oklahoma governor said Thursday.
On the Democratic side, Vice President Al Gore said anew that he has not yet decided his pick. Party sources said Warren Christopher, head of Gore's selection effort. has been asking Democratic lawmakers about the idea of picking former Maine Sen. George Mitchell.
Others thought to be on Gore's list include House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Florida Sen. Bob Graham and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.