Maybe former Gov. Tom Ridge was auditioning for the role of vice president after all as he campaigned earlier in the week with Republican presidential candidate John McCain in Pennsylvania.

On Wednesday, McCain floated the idea of naming a running mate who supports abortion rights in an interview with the Weekly Standard. He mentioned Ridge as someone worthy of consideration.

"I think that the pro-life position is one of the important aspects or fundamentals of the Republican Party," McCain told the conservative magazine.

"And also I feel that - and I'm not trying to equivocate here - that Americans want us to work together," he added. "You know, Tom Ridge is one of the great leaders, and he happens to be pro-choice. And I don't think that that would necessarily rule Tom Ridge out."

Limiting abortion rights is a longtime tenet of the GOP platform and a litmus test used by many in the influential social-conservative wing of the party. Most analysts assumed that Ridge's stance on the issue would disqualify him, despite the quarter century of friendship between the two men.

McCain has often given that impression himself, such as in an April interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews at Villanova University, during which he said "it would be difficult" to choose Ridge.

To win, McCain needs enthusiastic support from the party's conservative base, which was not wild about him in the GOP primaries. He has clashed with the right over the years on a variety of issues, notably over restrictions on campaign contributions, though he has a strong antiabortion voting record.

"Those kinds of statements drive conservatives crazy," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington who managed communications for former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. "I'm not sure what he was trying to do. I think it was a trial balloon."

Many antiabortion activists would consider it a betrayal if McCain were to pick Ridge or another supporter of abortion rights, said Maria Vitale, education director of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation.

"We hope Sen. McCain picks someone of his own ideological stripe, a pro-life running mate," Vitale said. "That would shore up his base." Otherwise, some conservatives could stay home in November in protest, she said.

On the other hand, some analysts say that choosing Ridge would appeal to moderate Republicans who have been defecting to the Democrats and to independents.

"From a political point of view, having a little bit of a rebellion on the right at the Republican convention and showing that streak of independence for moderates - it wouldn't be so bad," conservative thinker William Kristol, himself opposed to abortion rights, said on

Fox News Sunday

last month.

Ridge served in the Bush administration as the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. He stumped in Erie, his hometown, with the likely Republican presidential nominee Monday, and spent Tuesday with McCain in central Pennsylvania.

McCain has been circumspect about the vice-presidential selection process, and Ridge said in an interview Monday that he was not being "vetted" and had not discussed the position with McCain.

"Anything is possible," said Charles Kopp, a Center City lawyer and GOP activist who raises money for McCain. "Tom Ridge would make a fine vice president, and it certainly would help McCain in Pennsylvania."

Other likely contenders are former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a rival of McCain's in the primaries; Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal; and former U.S. budget director Rob Portman, who also was an Ohio congressman.

Ridge, McCain told the Weekly Standard, would be more palatable to social conservatives than New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "Bloomberg is pro-gay rights, you know," McCain said.