Sometimes the more fascinating events in politics take place behind the scenes, and the sudden focus on VP searches is an example. Yesterday, the news broke that John McCain would hold a VP barbecue bash this weekend, in which his closest friends would attend. This morning, CNN reports that Barack Obama has selected John Kerry’s VP committee chair to perform the same function for his campaign. That came as a surprise to Democrats who note that he hasn’t won the nomination yet:

Barack Obama is quietly beginning his search for a running mate, according to a veteran Democratic activist in Washington.

The activist told CNN that former Fannie Mae CEO Jim Johnson has accepted Obama’s request to begin a screening and selection process for the No. 2 spot.

Johnson performed the same role in 2004 and 1984 for then-Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry and Walter Mondale. …

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, was surprised Thursday to hear the news.

I’m surprised at her surprise. The strategies here seem rather obvious. John McCain wants to break through the media inattention, and so he gives them a juicy story, one that gives pundits plenty to analyze. Barack Obama wants to keep John McCain from getting all that earned media, and so steps on that story with his own VP search, which generates even more controversy since he hasn’t yet won the top spot on the ticket.

Obama made an odd selection for a committee chair. Johnson picked the running mates for two losing Democratic campaigns. Geraldine Ferraro could never have saved Walter Mondale, and indeed no one could have helped him beat Reagan, but the John Edwards pick seemed an avoidable mistake. Edwards never dented Bush’s support in the South, and he wound up losing his home state. One might have expected the candidate of “change” to have trusted this selection process to someone less tied to party-machine politics, too.

For McCain, the inclusion of Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham lends a little more heft to the story. Those are his closest friends in the Senate, and while neither of them have a hope of joining the ticket, their input will be critical to his decision. It appears that McCain isn’t outsourcing the selection-committee process but quarterbacking it himself.

At 3:35 pm CT, I’ll talk about this story with BBC Radio, with AM 1280 The Patriot hosting my end of the discussion.