At the risk of bringing too much clarity to the overheated discussion about whether Arizona Senator John McCain really was John Kerry’s “first choice” for the number two spot on the Democratic ticket, it is appropriate to recall a June 11 statement issued by the Arizona senator’s office.

“Senator McCain categorically states that he has not been offered the vice presidency by any one,” said Mark Salter, the senator’s chief of staff.

Salter issued that firm denial after the Associated Press was checking out the last of the rumors that Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, had offered McCain, a Republican senator whose disdain for President Bush has been well documented, a place on the ticket that will seek to remove Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney from the White House.

According to AP, a pair of Democratic officials were peddling the story that “McCain has personally rejected John Kerry’s overtures to join the Democratic presidential ticket and forge a bipartisan alliance against President Bush.” That sounded pretty serious. But then, in recognition of the firm denial from McCain’s office, the AP report backtracked. “Both officials said Kerry stopped short of offering McCain the job, sparing himself an outright rejection that would make his eventual running mate look like a second choice,” AP acknowledged.

In the real world, that should have settled the matter. But, of course, politics is not the real world.

So, now, despite the fact that McCain “categorically states that he has not been offered the vice presidency by any one,” the Republican National Committee is mounting an aggressive campaign to portray Kerry’s choice, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, as the presidential candidate’s “second choice.” There’s no subtlety here: A new Bush-Cheney television ad featuring a clip of McCain introducing Bush is titled “”First Choice.” And every Republican spokesman who got his talking-points script was, by mid-day Tuesday, using the “second-choice” jab in their remarks regarding Edwards.

The ads and the jabs are disingenuous at their core. McCain is a loyal Republican, who is seeking reelection to the Senate this fall on the party line, so, yes, he has officially endorsed Bush. But it is no secret in Washington that McCain maintains a healthy personal disregard for Bush, whose campaign and its supporters launched visceral attacks on the Arizona senator during their fight for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. McCain has said that Bush “should be ashamed” of the character of his primary campaign. (When Bush asked whether McCain would join his ticket in 2000, the senator refused — which would seem to suggest that Dick Cheney was Bush’s “second choice.)

This year, McCain has been quick to counter the Bush campaign’s attacks on Kerry, a fellow Vietnam veteran, sometime legislative ally and longtime friend. Asked in March, during a CBS interview, whether he agreed with assertions by the Bush campaign that Kerry would endanger national security, McCain replied, “I don’t think that. I think that John Kerry is a good and decent man. I think he has served his country. I think he has different points of view on different issues and he will have to explain his voting record. But this kind of (attack) rhetoric, I think, is not helpful in educating and helping the American people make a choice.”

Comments like that fed talk about the possibility that Kerry and McCain would link up to form a bipartisan “unity ticket” to depose Bush and Cheney. But it was always just that: talk. Undoubtedly, Kerry and McCain enjoyed the flirtation. And, yes, the dance extended for some time. But it never evolved into the sort of serious consideration that Kerry gave Edwards, former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and various other Democrats.

It wasn’t simply reticence on McCain’s part that prevented this flirtation from developing into something more serious. Kerry had a problem with it, as well. McCain is an opponent of abortion rights and many gay rights measures, a backer of Republican tax-cutting schemes and one of the most vehement hawks in the Congress — even before Bush was promoting war with Iraq, McCain joined with the atrocious Senator Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut, to advocate for military action. In other words, McCain may be a maverick, but he is hardly a certifiable moderate.

Choosing McCain would have opened rifts within the Democratic party, causing anti-war Democrats who already distrust Kerry to wonder whether a protest vote for Ralph Nader might make sense, and raising real concern among abortion rights activists who would have worried about positioning a consistent foe of a woman’s right to choose to break tie votes in a closely-divided Senate.

The bottom line: Kerry knew he could not select McCain. It was a fun flirtation — and, as with any flirtation, both men undoubtedly entertained fantasies about taking things further. But there is no evidence to suggest that the discussion ever reached the level of seriousness that the Republican spin now suggests.

There is, however, one Kerry-McCain mystery that remains unresolved: Does anyone believe that John McCain will actually vote for George w. Bush?