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CAMPAIGN 2000: A USER'S GUIDE

Veep Game Keeps Political Suspense Alive

You're nobody till somebody lists you as a running mate, but it's only speculation. Without thorough vetting, the flattering diversion could turn into 'Sorry.'

March 26, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — With all the hype and none of the glitter, the Beltway is abuzz with its very own version of Oscar-mania: rampant speculation over who will join Al Gore and George W. Bush as their vice presidential running mates.

A decision is some ways off. Why decide now, when circumstances could change?

Still, conjecture abounds. How about Sen. Charles Hagel? The Nebraska Republican is a Vietnam vet and campaign reformer, without the jagged edges of Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Or Sen. Evan Bayh? He's an Indiana Democrat popular in that Republican-leaning state, so his corn-fed charm might help Gore elsewhere in the Midwest.

Every Washington chat show worth its weight in pundits is filled with talking heads offering just such gratuitous advice. Press secretaries are trolling their call sheets, praying that the media's Great Mentioners put their bosses' names into play. (California Rep. Nancy Pelosi! Nancy Pelosi?)

Long Lists, Little Reality

Recently, The Hotline--a political digest and must-read for the campaign cognoscenti--published a list of 20 Democrats and 22 potential Republican running mates. The number was sufficient to fill the vice presidency and stock the next White House Cabinet nearly three times over. The names ranged from plausible (former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, a Republican, and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, a Democrat) to farfetched (Republican Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington state) to even farther-fetched (first-term California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis).

The point is that virtually anyone and everyone is somewhere on somebody's list. All you have to do is stand up and be counted (preferably while publicly disavowing the least bit of interest in the No. 2 spot). "It's a game," said Republican strategist Don Sipple. "A flattering game."

At the same time, the selection of a running mate could be the most important decision the presumptive nominees make between now and November. So when the time comes, weeks or months from now, all the advice from those armchair experts will give way to certain cold-eyed realities.

Balance of some sort--geographic, ideological--is always high on the list. The ability to carry an important state is another consideration. That would give Gore a strong incentive to choose, say, Graham, to boost his prospects in Florida, a state Bush almost certainly has to win to capture the White House.

The same rationale might prompt Bush to select Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas J. Ridge to help in that tossup state, or New York Gov. George Pataki to try to nudge that Democratic leaner away from Gore's column.

But it gets more complicated. Ridge and Pataki are both Catholics, which could help Bush with that bloc, a potential swing group in several battleground states. But Ridge and Pataki also are pro-choice on abortion, which could hurt Bush with Christian conservatives.

As those convoluted calculations suggest, there is no one perfect candidate, except theoretically Colin L. Powell (though some suggest his wattage could pale either nominee in contrast). No matter. The retired Army general has said repeatedly that he's not interested.

The uppermost rule, based on painful experience, is one borrowed from medicine: First do no harm.

"The No. 1 thing you don't want to do is anything that would hurt the top of the ticket," said David Doak, a Democratic strategist. Think Dan Quayle. Think Geraldine A. Ferraro. Think Thomas F. Eagleton, who was dropped from George S. McGovern's ticket in 1972 after reports that he had undergone treatment for manic depression.

By no coincidence, Eagleton was the last running mate to be selected at his party's national nominating convention. Now the choice is typically made days, if not weeks, before the conventions--after weeks, if not months, of screening.

Presidential contenders "don't want to make hasty decisions that blow up in their faces," said Michael Nelson, a vice presidential expert at Tennessee's Rhodes College. "Eagleton showed the real risks of not thoroughly vetting the people you're considering."

Thus, serious candidates will be asked to supply the Bush and Gore camps with voluminous amounts of personal information. Besides the obvious--health records, tax returns--possible running mates probably will be asked to provide legal documentation for any household worker they've ever hired, to describe every investment they've ever made, to name every charitable cause they've ever supported and to recount every group they've ever spoken to.

"You want to know it before anyone else knows it," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican strategist who helped Bob Dole settle on Jack Kemp as a running mate four years ago. "You don't want to find out the day [a running mate] is announced that he gave a speech to some apartheid group in South Africa."

Typically, the most effective means of vetting is the election process. That explains why nominees tend to pass over political outsiders in favor of an officeholder with a well-established record.

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