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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Speculation hit a fever pitch on the U.S. vice presidential sweepstakes on Tuesday, with Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain nearing their choices of a No. 2 amid a flurry of sly hints and outright guesses.
Time is running out for the announcement from Obama, whose running mate will be formally nominated at the party's convention in Denver next Wednesday. His choice is expected by the weekend.
McCain has an extra week to make his pick, and the Arizona senator scheduled a big rally for the crucial battleground state of Ohio on Friday, August 29 -- the day after Obama accepts his party's presidential nomination.
Aides to the Republican candidate declined comment but did not dispute a report he would unveil his choice on that day, which would immediately shift the political focus from Obama's coronation to McCain's.
With the selections drawing near, intense speculation about the candidates filled Web sites and cable news talk shows -- to the delight of both campaign staffs.
"The candidates want to stoke the speculation with nods, hints and winks to get as much visibility as they can for the ultimate announcement," said Doug Schoen, a Democratic consultant and former pollster for President Bill Clinton.
Obama announced he would kick off his trip to the Denver convention on Saturday at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, the spot where he formally announced his presidential bid in February 2007 -- an indication he will unveil his pick before then so they can make the tour to Denver together.
After weeks of discretion in their search for a running mate, both campaigns have floated trial balloons recently to help them gauge reaction as the public lists narrowed.
Speculation about Obama's choice has centered on three prime contenders -- Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden.
Obama, an Illinois senator, has met or spoken recently to each of the three. He will campaign in Virginia on Wednesday, and he dropped a plug for Biden's proposal for reconstruction assistance to Georgia into his speech on Tuesday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, returned on Monday from a weekend trip to Georgia.
"I'm proud to join my friend, Senator Joe Biden, in calling for an additional $1 billion in reconstruction assistance for the people of Georgia," Obama said.
McCain's short list includes Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former budget director Rob Portman and former Homeland Security Secretary and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.
McCain, an opponent of abortion rights, sparked criticism from conservatives last week when he said Ridge, a supporter of abortion rights, could not be ruled out as a possible vice presidential choice.
History has shown the choice of a running mate is unlikely to have a major impact on the November 4 presidential election between Obama and McCain, but it could offer hints of the candidates' priorities.
The last two vice presidents -- Democrat Al Gore and Republican Dick Cheney -- played influential roles in the administration and redefined the office. Obama and McCain must gauge whether they want to pick someone who can help them get elected or someone who could help them govern or take over as president if needed.
Obama, 47, could reinforce his message of change with a new face like Kaine, a close political ally from a key battleground state, or add foreign policy experience with someone like Biden.
McCain, who turns 72 on August 29, the day he might unveil his choice, is well-known for his foreign and military policy experience. But he could also turn to former venture capitalist Romney or Portman, who also served as trade representative, to shore up his economic credentials.
Pawlenty could help in his home state of Minnesota and Ridge could help in Pennsylvania, both swing states. But there are no guarantees -- Democrat John Kerry got little help from his running mate John Edwards in 2004, who could not put the ticket over the top in his home state of North Carolina.
"It's highly unlikely any of those choices are going to decisively impact the election," Schoen said of the potential running mates. "It could make a difference at the margins, but the choice is much more about governing."
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by David Wiessler