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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

No Formula Tells How to Fill a Gap on a Party Ticket

August 18, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

So, suppose Sen. John McCain today were the Republican Party's nominee for president. It could have happened. He won the New Hampshire primary in a landslide. He won in Michigan against all odds. McCain was giving George W. Bush a real run for his money, mocking the Texas governor in one particularly rude February speech as "a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore."

Let's say the McCain campaign snowballed. Say his opponent proceeded to lose South Carolina and later California and faded like an Austin sunset. Say the party's convention in Philadelphia came to an end on Aug. 3, with a thousand or two McCain 2000 balloons in the rafters and a dandruff of confetti in McCain's white hair.

With his wife Cindy by his side--maybe even calling him "my Johnny"--let's imagine that the Arizona senator pledged to outrun Gore all the way to November. But then on Aug. 16, not even a full fortnight after accepting his party's nomination, it was disclosed that McCain had been diagnosed with melanoma, an extremely aggressive form of skin cancer. (As it so happened.)

What then?

Should the candidate voluntarily step aside--after all, that's what Rudy Giuliani did in New York--for his own good, if not the good ofthe people?

It's a good question. But here's a better one:

Would his running mate automatically become the candidate?

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Pardon our morbidity, but there doesn't appear to be any provision for what would happen to a presidential election, should one of the nominated candidates suddenly be unable to remain in the race.

"The Constitution is silent about that," says Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at USC with a respected expertise in constitutional law. "It's silent, because the Constitution doesn't say anything about our process of selecting a candidate."

Amendment XX to our original Bill of Rights does address something bad's happening to an elected candidate before Inauguration Day.

"If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President," it reads.

In other words, should a sad fate befall this November's victorious candidate before the stroke of noon on Jan. 20, 2001, there would be no dispute over what would occur next--the swearing in of President Cheney or President Lieberman.

But if, heaven forbid, anything should impede either Bush's or Gore's ability to run from now until November, it isn't clear what would happen.

Would the convention somehow reconvene? Would a committee of a few party leaders take a show of hands? Would, for example, Joe Lieberman be the presumptive Democratic nominee, or would Bill Bradley beg everybody's pardon and ask for his old delegates back?

"The party would have to work it out," Chemerinsky says, "because it would never be constitutional. The whole idea of political parties isn't even in the Constitution. The basic process of a candidate getting on a ballot is rooted in state law, not federal."

Yes, but what if Al Gore were the one who just found out he had cancer?

"There's probably a huge difference between pre-tonight and post-tonight," Chemerinsky speculated, a few hours before Gore's acceptance speech Thursday. "Once tonight is over, Lieberman is the nominated running mate. It's doubtful his party would start from scratch.

"If anything had happened to Al Gore a day ago, though, the Democrats would have had time to ask themselves if that meant their nomination was up for grabs."

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Precedent does exist for the loss of a running mate. James Schoolcraft Sherman, who served as vice president from 1909-12, died on Oct. 30, 1912, prior to the election. The president, William Howard Taft, replaced him on the ballot with Nicholas Butler, the former Columbia University president. (Taft ended up third on election day.)

However, how this time frame affects the person atop the ticket is like a Bermuda Triangle of the American political system. Nobody goes near it. It is so unspoken as to be taboo.

Eight presidents died in office--four of illness. One of them (William Henry Harrison) fell ill and died 31 days after his inauguration.

So, while it may be unlikely that George Bush or Al Gore, each a relatively young, vigorous guy, would be unable to fulfill his obligation before November, remember, nobody saw John McCain's cancer coming, either.

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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