WASHINGTON -- With the Democratic National Convention only two weeks away, Gov. Bill Clinton's best chance to draw public and media attention from the Bush-Perot donnybrook over Perot's alleged super-snooping is to make an impressive selection of a running mate.
At the same time, however, the fact that the November election now shapes up as a three-candidate affair could affect that choice in a way that would not be as high-minded as Clinton has vowed his selection will be. In the end, the possibility of a finish in which a handful of electoral votes make the difference could pressure him to make a more traditional, big-state choice after all.
The Arkansas governor has pledged to pick someone who will be widely seen as qualified for the presidency without regard to the customary considerations of geography or other factors deemed to enhance the ticket's chances for victory.
He has made that commitment with an undoubted awareness that even in so noble an intent, there could be political capital in such a choice. President Bush's running mate, Vice President Dan Quayle, is still rated a negative for him four years after he first anointed the young Hoosier, and Clinton obviously hopes he can make the selection of Quayle look even worse by picking an individual of recognized stature.
This is so in spite of evidence that voters nearly always cast their ballots based on their feelings toward the presidential candidates, not their running mates. Although the polls in 1988 clearly showed that voters liked Democratic running mate Sen. Lloyd Bentsen more than Quayle, they voted decisively for George Bush because they preferred him over Democrat Michael S. Dukakis.
Nevertheless, Clinton has said that his running mate above all else will be seen by voters as a person they can comfortably visualize in the Oval Office if something were to happen to him. Using that yardstick, what state that person came from, large or small, wouldn't matter.
That formula would seem to benefit one Democrat figuring prominently in the speculation about Clinton's "short list" of prospects, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, whose firm even-handedness in the conduct of the Iran-contra congressional hearings won wide respect for him. Bush's staying with Quayle might be most effectively highlighted by pitting fellow-Hoosier Hamilton, mature and serious, against the beleaguered vice president.
But the heightened scramble for electoral votes can put an especially high premium on selecting a running mate from one of the larger states. Indiana has only 12 electoral votes this year, and the Democrats' winning this traditionally Republican state would be a long shot in any event, particularly with Quayle on the ballot.
Several others being mentioned on the "short list," with Clinton -- remaining silent, could face the same obstacle because they don't offer much of an electoral-vote bonus. These include Sens. Al Gore of Tennessee (11 electoral votes), Tom Harkin of Iowa (7) and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska (5). Even Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey (15), who says flatly he's not interested, offers only a modest bounty in electoral votes.
All this does not suggest that Clinton in the end will be obliged to decide primarily on the highly questionable basis of electoral votes to be won by selection of a running mate. If that were the case, two Democrats from California with its 54 electoral votes, former Gov. Jerry Brown and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who has been mentioned on some lists, would have the inside track. Neither, however, is considered a serious prospect.
The electoral-vote yardstick would inevitably advance the names of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York (33), who isn't likely to play second fiddle to anyone, Gov. Ann Richards of Texas (32), who carries negative baggage from her gubernatorial campaign, and Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania (23).
For Clinton, who wants to be regarded as a Washington outsider as a way to tap into the wide public hostility toward politics as usual, Wofford could be appealing as an older freshman senator and newcomer to elective politics who was himself elected as an outsider promising to shake up Washington. A tweedy 66-year-old former college president who helped John F. Kennedy found the Peace Corps, Wofford would seem to offer stature -- and the prospect of a bundle of electoral votes.
The choice, though, is Clinton's, and about the only certainty is that he won't pick a Washington insider who can't spell "potato."