Help win a state or a key voter group. Bring youth, experience or gravitas. Balance the ticket based on gender, race, region or ideology.

These are some of the traditional considerations in the vice presidential selection process. Let me suggest one more consideration for Sen. John McCain: Play it safe.

That's right, the Arizona Republican needs to err on the side of caution. His choice needs to be a pro-life economic conservative with zero baggage and solid experience in government. Completely noncontroversial.

Why do I suggest that a candidate who has been trailing in national polls and whose party is predicted to take a bath in the coming congressional elections play it safe?

Because this race is not about John McCain.

Thanks to a legion of factors having nothing to do with McCain, the Democratic presidential nominee should be the prohibitive favorite in November. From the start, the race for the White House was always about the Democrat. Had the Democrats played it safe by nominating an experienced Washington hand, this race would be over - barring, of course, some major external event. Yet, the Democrats didn't play it safe. They threw caution to the wind and threw in with Barack Obama, a fresh new blank slate.

Opportunity thus came calling for McCain's campaign. They could make the fall campaign about Obama. They could define him as dangerously inexperienced and naïve - in addition to being the tax-and-spend, abortion-on-demand, foreign-policy-appeasing liberal that he is.

If the Republican victory strategy is to disqualify Obama, McCain can't do anything that would disqualify himself in the minds of these less-than-ideological voters prepared to shift his way. As such, McCain's vice presidential pick has to be a nonevent, something of a yawner.

McCain needs someone who isn't going to upset the essential conservative base of the Republican Party, but will not raise red flags to moderates who have disqualified, or are ready to disqualify, Obama.

Let's look at some of the names being mentioned: Virginia U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, former Hewlett Packard CEO and McCain economic adviser Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Ohio Congressman and Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman, former Pennsylvania governor and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, FedEx CEO Fred Smith, and South Dakota Sen. John Thune.

Phew, that's quite a list. Though I wonder how many of these folks the media drummed up and how many are actually being considered by McCain's veep-vetting team.

Here is a quick screen his team should apply: Does the potential running mate have a connection to President Bush? Is he or she not ready for prime time, because that's the GOP's main charge against Obama?

Does the man or woman have meaningful government experience - long-serving governor or member of Congress, because the public understands that running a company and knowing how to govern are not the same thing? Is the potential running mate a lightning-rod conservative or, conversely, a selection that threatens to turn off the GOP's conservative base?

Look no further than the election of 1988. George H.W. Bush picked the relatively inexperienced Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle as his vice presidential running mate. Michael Dukakis, by contrast, played it safe. The Massachusetts governor picked the uber-experienced Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas.

In their only vice presidential candidates debate, Bentsen commanded the stage. His dominance over his less-experienced senate colleague was summed up in Bentsen's now-famous response to Quayle: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."

For a time after the debate, Bentsen cast a shadow over Bush and took the focus off all that Dukakis lacked as a presidential candidate. Happily for Republicans, Bush 41 overcame this campaign hiccup. But, then, Bush the elder was running in a far more favorable political environment than the one McCain faces today.

McCain might recall this bit of history and exercise excess caution in choosing his running mate. Bet the table minimum. Leave it to this season's agent of "change" to go all in.

Better for John McCain to be safe than sorry.

E-mail Rick Santorum at rsantorum@phillynews.com.