Two news photos of Condoleezza Rice were widely circulated on the same day. In one, she was cheering for the Georgetown basketball team. In the other, she was entering the Gridiron dinner, glamorously dressed for a Washington ritual once closed to people in evening gowns.

This is a smart, beautiful, black woman who speaks well and loves sports. In other words, she's the ideal running mate for John McCain.

McCain will be competing against a female, an African-American or possibly both. After Bill Clinton started talking up a Hillary-Barack ticket as an "unstoppable force," Obama felt compelled to give the standard statement of any presidential candidate: "I am not running for vice president and don't intend to be vice president."

Fine. But he never said never. The pressure on the Democratic winner to put the loser on the ticket and on the loser to accept will be enormous.

Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania spoke for many Democrats when he said, "It would be great" to have a ticket composed of both leading contenders, in either order.

Such a "dream ticket" would be strong, yes, but not "unstoppable." McCain runs even with both Clinton and Obama in the latest Newsweek poll. This election could be very close, so his choice of a running mate takes on unusual significance.

Start with McCain's age and health. He'd be 72 on inauguration day, and he's battled the aftereffects of war wounds and skin cancer. So while every nominee says he's picking a running mate qualified to be president, the bar is especially high for McCain. No Dan Quayles need apply.

Rice would be 54, exactly the right blend of maturity and vigor, and there's no question about her qualifications. She probably knows more world leaders than McCain, Clinton and Obama combined.

As national security advisor and then secretary of state in the Bush administration, Rice is closely identified with an unpopular war. But so is McCain, who admits that his candidacy will rise or fall on the Iraq issue. His campaign theme is already clear: Accuse Democrats of "retreat and defeat" while he stands for "victory." Rice is well positioned to deliver that message as McCain's surrogate.

Rice's biggest drawback is lack of electoral experience she said recently that running for office is "not in my genes" but many years in the public spotlight have given her three qualities a candidate must have: poise, discipline and endurance. And she can claim connections to four different states: Alabama, where she was born; Colorado and Indiana, where she got her education; and California, where she taught at Stanford.

Her other problem is this: She does little to compensate for two of McCain's serious weaknesses lack of economic expertise and the suspiciousness of hard-core conservatives. But as provost at Stanford, she did manage a multibillion-dollar budget, and as the daughter of a minister, she is a churchgoing woman of faith.

Obama has a great story, with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas. But he spent his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, both foreign countries to most Americans. Rice's story is just as compelling and more recognizable, growing up in the segregated South with a father who guarded the family house with a shotgun while his daughter practiced the piano inside.

Rice was 8 years old in 1963 when a bomb exploded at a Sunday school a few blocks from her father's church, killing four young girls, including Denise McNair, a childhood friend. "I did not see it happen," she told a graduating class at Vanderbilt, "but I heard it happen and I felt it happen." And campaign audiences would feel that explosion as well.

She jokes that her father put a football in her crib when she was born, and Rice is a huge sports fan, once waking up at 2 a.m. in Jerusalem to watch a Super Bowl. As Clinton has learned, plenty of men are still uneasy with a powerful woman, but Rice notes that her passion for sports "is a great icebreaker" with male colleagues, including the president. Hillary might star on "Saturday Night Live," but Condi would be a smash on "SportsCenter."

Finally, who's her competition? Governors like Charlie Crist of Florida or Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota can't begin to match her credentials. The only option who might is Kay Bailey Hutchison, a 15-year Senate veteran, but she'll be 65 next January. So if McCain wants to have a chance at stopping an "unstoppable force," he should seriously consider Condi Rice.

Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.