April 18, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Two weeks ago, people were suggesting that Bill Clinton might not win the Democratic presidential nomination. Now, in a sign of his improved fortunes, they want to know who his running mate will be.

Speculating about running mates is one of America's favorite political parlor games. Anybody can play -- except people who want the job. Protocol requires aspirants to feign lack of interest and express amazement at the thought of being asked to run.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who was mentioned as a possible running mate during his state's presidential primary last month, gave a typically breezy response when asked whether a Clinton-Lieberman ticket has appeal: "To my mother, I guess."

A spokesman for Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, whose name is on a list of women put forward by the National Women's Political Caucus, said that "she's qualified to be on the list" but is running for re-election to the Senate.

Pressuring Mr. Clinton would be unforgivable.

Dennis Kanin, who was campaign manager for Paul E. Tsongas, now a possible running mate, froze when asked what advice he'd give on choosing someone: "I think I just want to pass on this."

But this doesn't mean a potential running mate's supporters can't lobby the news media.

Terry Michael, an admirer and former employee of Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, faxed reporters and editors two pages of arguments on his behalf this week. Mr. Simon, he says, would help shore up Mr. Clinton's liberal support and bring him victory in Illinois, a big state the Democrats need to win.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson has his advocates, too. Steve Cobble, who was delegate selection coordinator for Mr. Jackson during his 1988 presidential run, is trying to build a "draft Jesse Jackson for vice president" movement.

"Whether the eventual nominee is Bill Clinton, Jerry Brown or someone chosen at a brokered convention, we need to send a message that the people want Jesse Jackson on the ticket," Mr. Cobble says in a letter to supporters.

Mr. Michael and Mr. Cobble say their efforts are not authorized by their former bosses; nor are they discouraged. "I didn't hear him say no, I can't," Mr. Michael says.

Mr. Clinton also is being offered advice by Paul Goldman, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. He says the Arkansas governor should defy conventional wisdom and choose a Southerner to help win Southern states and make a Democratic victory less dependent on taking California.

Though he works for Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, Mr. Goldman insists he is not trying to boost his boss, who briefly sought the Democratic nomination.

Mr. Clinton, meanwhile, is in no rush to decide.

Asked this week in Los Angeles, he took a slap at George Bush's selection of Dan Quayle as a running mate in 1988. "What I don't want to do is make the decision the way President Bush did last time."

Mr. Clinton says in his search for a running mate, he would emphasize a person's qualifications to succeed him as president. Which is not to say he won't weigh the political advantages a running mate might bring to the ticket.

While historians note that John F. Kennedy's selection of Texan Lyndon B. Johnson helped him win Texas in 1960, they also point out that 1988 Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis lost the state while teamed with Texas Sen. Lloyd M. Bentsen.

"People vote for president, not for vice president," says Candice Nelson, director of the Campaign Management Institute at American University.

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