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Bentsen Expands Bush VP Options : With Texan Already on Ticket, GOP's Choices Increase

July 16, 1988|CATHLEEN DECKER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — All along, George Bush has played a wait-and-see game. Wait and see, that is, who Democratic nominee-in-waiting Michael S. Dukakis would pick as his running mate.

Then, armed with a clearer focus on the Democratic strategy, Bush would be able to shore up the strategic groups made vulnerable by the Dukakis pick and enter the fray. Or so it was to be.

But with the selection this week of Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, a home-grown son of Bush's adopted home state, the Bush campaign is in the startling position of enjoying what they and other political observers agree is a larger-than-expected set of options.

Instead of a purely defensive move meant to counteract the geographic pull of Dukakis' selection, Bush is faced with what many see as a wide-open field--he can strike in the West, the Midwest or the South; choose a conservative or bow to a moderate.

"Let's face it, Gore or Glenn would have shifted our focus," said one campaign official, referring to Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. and Ohio Sen. John Glenn, two potential Democratic vice presidential nominees who could have been regionally powerful. "But we've got a Texan on the ticket. There's no temptation to counterbalance anything. "

Wagers Go Sour

Republican consultant Eddie Mahe agreed. "It opens him up to do anything," Mahe said.

And with the only drama--aside from Jesse Jackson's future plans--now settled on the Democratic side, attention is focusing even more brightly on Bush's selection. Bettors on a front-runner are finding their wagers sour hourly. The campaign, meanwhile, has thrown a shroud over any public discussion of contenders.

"Nobody wants to talk about it," a Bush official pleaded Friday, after fielding an assortment of calls from reporters about the vice president's vice presidential options.

And Bush himself has hung up the "Gone Fishing" sign. Literally. He and Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III were to leave this morning for a five-day fishing trip in the wilds of Wyoming. As for whether running mates were on the agenda along with fly-fishing, well, nobody wanted to talk about it.

Aides suggested, however, that both the vice presidential selection and the timetable for Baker's expected move to become chairman of the Bush campaign would be discussed by the men.

In the interim, Bush has appointed the campaign's chief strategist, Robert Teeter, to come up with a plan for handling the vice presidential selection. Aides said they discussed the matter this week.

There is much to discuss, for Bush must decide by the Republican convention a month from now among a host of suggestions that have been bandied about publicly. At the root, Bush must decide whether to pursue a strategy aimed at attracting a geographic area of the country or an ideological branch of the party.

And there is little agreement among the seers who have been seeking clues to Bush's decision.

On the geographic front, political analysts suggest Bush has several avenues of attack.

In the South, the leading candidates appear to be former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, former White House chief of staff-Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. and South Carolina Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr.

In the Midwest, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole leads the pack and Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson is also mentioned. And in the West, Arizona Sen. John McCain has grown slightly in the public eye since he began taking on Dukakis at Bush's behest. California Gov. George Deukmejian has fallen from the front ranks with his repeated declarations that is not interested in the ticket--and because many figure that if Ronald Reagan's support cannot deliver California for Bush, Deukmejian would be of little help.

Not From Northeast

Little serious consideration is given to picking a running mate from the Northeast--at least not for geographical reasons. Bush himself--born in Massachusetts, raised in Connecticut and with a vacation home in Maine--covers that part of the country rather thoroughly.

New York Rep. Jack Kemp remains a prominent possibility, but more for reasons of ideology than geography. Kemp, like Dole a former Bush challenger, rates high among conservatives.

Those who figure a woman on the ticket would reopen interest in Bush cite as potential running mates former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Kansas Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum and, to a lesser extent, Illinois Rep. Lynn Martin.

Only one name has been unofficially ruled out this week--and that not because of the Bentsen selection. Many consultants believe that former Pennsylvania Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh took himself out of the vice presidential race when he accepted Reagan's offer to become attorney general-designate.

The front-runners, at least this week, appear to be Kemp and Dole. Kemp, many believe, would appeal to both conservative Republicans and Reagan Democrats, the so-called swing voters that Bush needs to win the election.

"Kemp makes more sense," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "He (Bush) gets the right and has someone to go into the blue-collar neighborhoods, and you get some contrast with Bentsen who goes into board rooms."

Although Dole and Bush have a long-standing personality conflict, some suggest the Kansas senator would add solid credentials and a flair absent from Bush and both Democrats. While the mating sounds farfetched, one adviser suggested that Bush would "hug Bob Dole and that'd be the end of it" if Bush was persuaded the election was on the line. Dole supporters have been touting their man avidly, in part on the thinking that Dole's life as Senate minority leader under a Democratic President would be drudgery and that even a Bush loss would put him in the forefront for 1992.

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