Running down Clinton's running-mate choices ON POLITICS

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

May 15, 1992|By Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The near-inevitability of Gov. Bill Clinton's nomination as the 1992 Democratic presidential candidate, almost certainly enhanced Tuesday by easy primary victories in Nebraska and West Virginia, is heightening speculation in and ,, out of the Clinton campaign about his selection of a running mate.

Staff deliberations to formulate recommendations to Clinton are said to be centering on the wisdom of picking somebody who will counter his lack of experience in Washington, although he has made being a Washington outsider a selling point for his candidacy.

With the House so deeply in the soup with voters as a result of the check-bouncing furor, Clinton strategists are said to be taking their hardest look at the roster of Senate Democrats. They obviously would love to have Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey on the ticket, especially now in the wake of the Rodney King case verdict and the Los Angeles riots. Bradley has stepped forth for more than a year as the party's voice of conscience and impatience on dealing with racism and the plight of the cities.

But Bradley insists he will honor his pledge to the voters of New Jersey, who narrowly re-elected him in 1990, to serve out the full six-year term, his third. Beyond that, he says, he believes he can be a more effective prod for racial justice and an agenda to achieve it as a non-candidate. "I think that the dialogue is what is important," he says, "and the dialogue might flourish in an atmosphere where there are not political implications, or personal ambition considerations."

With the notion of finding a running mate from an important electoral-college state in mind, two other senators, Paul Simon of Illinois (26 electoral votes) and John Kerry of Massachusetts (13), have been looked at but both bear liberal labels that Clinton can do without. So three others from smaller states but varying degees of personal appeal -- Bob Kerrey of Nebraska (5 electoral votes), Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia (6) and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine (4) -- are said to be among those on the current list.

Clinton has been playing his running-mate cards close to his vest. He has dropped kind words about this and that Democrat as he has gone through the primary states, the latest being Rockefeller the other day in West Virginia. He has said only that he will select someone who may not be everybody else's choice but will be acknowledged as a person qualified to take over the presidency if fate were to so dictate.

In any event, Clinton insiders say the governor wants to get all the primaries behind him and have the nomination in his pocket, that is, the after the last round of votes in California and five other states on June 2, before focusing personally on the vice-presidential question. How important geographical or other such factors are in selecting a politically beneficial running mate is, at any rate, a matter of conjecture. Studies indicate that voters nearly always cast their ballots for the top of the ticket.

When George Bush in 1988 jolted his own convention, not to mention the country, in selecting Dan Quayle, the campaign of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was beside itself with glee, thinking Bush had handed Dukakis a campaign bonanza. And although Quayle was much maligned during his erratic fall appearances, he proved to be no handicap for Bush on Election Day.

This was so in spite of the fact that Dukakis chose a running mate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, who was the hit of the campaign. CBS News exit polls reported that 10.9 percent of voters interviewed said Bentsen was a factor in their voting for Dukakis, to only 4.3 percent who said they voted for Bush because he had picked Quayle. But the choice between Bush and Dukakis was an easy one for most voters and their running mates were irrelevant to the outcome. In an extremely close race, though, the running mate could make a difference.

One argument for the selection this year of Bob Kerrey is that as a wounded and decorated Vietnam veteran he could cause discomfort for Quayle, who served in the Indiana National Guard rather than facing the draft and possible Vietnam duty. But the whole matter of military service and the draft in the Vietnam War is one that Clinton would like to forget, for obvious reasons.

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