WASHINGTON -- A three-way deadlock may throw the presidential election into the House of Representatives come January.
But Wyoming's only congressman has already eliminated one of those candidates.
"I wouldn't vote for Bill Clinton if he won the state," declares Rep. Craig Thomas, who could be casting the sole vote on Capitol Hill for Wyoming's estimated 223,000 voters. "Because I'm running as a Republican. I'm a supporter of George Bush," he says, doubting that voters would want him to support a Democrat.
And what if Ross Perot captures the majority of his state's votes?
VJ Mr. Thomas is less certain. "I think there's a little more flexibility
on that one," he admits.
House members and their challengers from Maryland to Alaska are grappling with an unusual constitutional possibility: They could arrive in Washington in about six months to choose a president, for the first time since 1824, when House members picked John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay and William H. Crawford.
Should all three presidential candidates fail to gain the (x necessary 270 electoral votes to capture the White House, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution requires the House of Representatives to gather Jan. 6 and determine the outcome from among the top three candidates.
Each state has one vote. The candidate who gets 26 votes wins. If a House delegation in a particular state is deadlocked, that state is disqualified.
Like most House members, Mr. Thomas believes the next president will be selected at the ballot box and not on Capitol Hill. But he daydreams about having as much clout as the 52-member California delegation. "I'd love it," he says.
Four other states also have one at-large member of Congress who could be casting a single vote for the president: Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont.
Vermont Rep. Bernard Sanders, the House's only independent and a former Socialist mayor of Burlington, would give "very, very great deference to how the state votes in deciding how to cast his ballot," said his press secretary, Debbie Bookchin.
One congressional Democrat said that House leaders are playing down the possibility of the House's deciding the election. "They don't want to give credence to the idea of a third-party candidate," he said.
But growing numbers of would-be president-makers are saying that voters want to know how they will cast a vote. "That's a common question," says John Wayne Caton of Texas, the Democratic nominee challenging Republican Rep. Dick Armey.
"I would go the way the district votes," said Mr. Caton, who has endorsed the likely independent candidacy of Ross Perot. "I would expect that to be Perot."
Others, such as Constance A. Morella, the Republican representative for Maryland's 8th District, also plan to bow to the wishes of their districts, apparently agreeing with the maxim that all politics is local.
William Bricker, a GOP nominee from Towson hoping to unseat Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in Maryland's 3rd District, said he would be inclined to vote for the candidate that won his district. He has taken to reminding voters that the vote they cast for Congress may be a vote for president.
But some candidates say they'll also look at state or national returns. Others plan to consider party affiliation and their consciences. Anna Eshoo, the Democratic nominee running for an open seat on the outskirts of San Francisco, will review all those options, a spokesman said.
Still others would rather not say.
"I've decided not to get into a speculative decision," said Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore.
Since Democrats have majority control of most state delegations, Democratic National Committee Chairman Ronald H. Brown told CNN recently that the party's likely nominee, Bill Clinton, "would have a tremendous advantage if it goes into the House."
Are Democrats obligated to vote for Mr. Clinton? he was asked.
"Democrats in the House have an obligation to their constituents, and I would think that they all agree what's best for their constituents is to have a Democrat in the White House," Mr. Brown replied.
But most House Democrats -- and Republicans -- are going for the subtle approach, telling voters that they will consider a number of factors, including the district vote.
Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of the 5th District, who is head of the Democratic Caucus, said that he would consider five factors, ranging from local vote to his conscience. "Party affiliation" came last on his list.
Tom Cole, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he does not have a stock answer for GOP candidates about such a historic vote.
"We tell them: Tell [voters] what you think," he says.