It has been more than a year since Bob Dole first floated the name of California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren as a potential vice presidential running mate in what may have been purely a rhetorical lark.
But whether Dole was serious or not last June, Lungren's name is still afloat. That, in itself, is something. And while skeptics argue that no one is likely to pick a state attorney general as his vice presidential candidate, the 49-year-old Lungren has emerged as a credible contender in the minds of many respected Republicans.
Lungren appeared with Dole during his three-day California swing that ended Wednesday. Dole greeted Lungren warmly, but at several stops, he deflected questions about Lungren as a possible running mate--as he does with any rumored candidate.
He would only say that the selection process is getting started.
The Lungren-as-running-mate idea took life on a Dole trip to San Francisco in June 1995. Dole was asked by a reporter about the prospect of California Gov. Pete Wilson as a ticket mate in 1996.
Dole retorted: "What about Dan Lungren?"
Political analysts thought that, at best, it was a nice gesture to Lungren, the second-term California attorney general who--in a break with his own governor--was toiling hard on Dole's behalf in California. But a state attorney general as a vice presidential candidate? Not likely, it seemed at the time.
More to the point was the fact that Wilson then was a rival of Dole for the Republican presidential nomination and Wilson had been harshly critical of Dole's candidacy. Dole's Lungren-for-veep comment was interpreted by many as merely a backhanded slap at Wilson.
But now it is less than two months to the start of the Republican National Convention in San Diego and Lungren remains in the thick of speculation about potential Dole running mates.
Two influential California Republicans, traveling with Dole this week and declining to be quoted by name, said Wednesday that they were dubious about Lungren's candidacy and not at all certain he would be a finalist.
Lungren's name is not necessarily on the top of anyone's list, a spot usually reserved for Michigan Gov. John Engler. But Lungren consistently is mentioned as a possibility.
All of this is speculative, of course. The only list that really counts is Dole's, and that is a well-guarded secret.
One California political strategist who doubts that lightning will strike Lungren is Garry South, a Democratic political consultant and aide to Lt. Gov. Gray Davis.
"It doesn't make any sense," said South, who is preparing a Davis-for-governor race in 1998. "Nobody in the 49 other states knows who Lungren is."
Dole's mention of Lungren had nothing to do with Lungren, but was merely the Kansan's way of zapping Wilson, South said. Now, he added, Lungren talk "has kind of taken on a life of its own."
But a Dole-Lungren ticket makes sense to Donna Lucas, a Sacramento-based Republican consultant.
"He's a hell of a campaigner," Lucas said of Lungren. "He would help balance the ticket. He's young. He's dynamic. I think he could be a very strong complement to Dole."
Lungren is a strong conservative, and unlike Wilson, is popular across the GOP philosophical spectrum in California, Lucas said.
"Lungren has that ability to reach out and talk to everybody. That is an incredible asset that Dole's going to need," Lucas said.
In Los Angeles last week, Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, said he thought Lungren might help Dole in a bid to carry California's critical 54 electoral votes if Dole is able to mount a competitive challenge in the state. Dole has repeatedly vowed to make his California campaign a priority.
Reed, a strong Dole backer, rejected several of the common assumptions about what Dole needs to achieve in choosing a running mate: someone young to balance Dole's age, a prominent governor or senator from a swing state, and a moderate on abortion who would appeal to disaffected Republican women.
Reed does not even accept the traditional tenet that a running mate at least should guarantee victory in his or her state. Any state Dole wins, he will have to win on his own, Reed said.
But Reed did say that Dole's selection could make "a generational statement--pick someone who was either younger chronologically or younger in terms of demeanor or spirit or reputation."
Lungren would meet that test on several points, say those who know him well. And a Dole-Lungren ticket would provide geographic variety from a state that is considered to be on the cutting edge of economic and social change.
Outwardly, Lungren has claimed only to be flattered and bemused by the attention.
Lungren has said he told his children it's all right to clip the newspaper stories for their scrapbooks. Otherwise, he said: "Don't hold your breath. It's not likely to happen."