WASHINGTON -- In pondering his choice of a running mate, Gov. Bill Clinton has been commendably deliberative and secretive, in keeping with his twin objectives of making a responsible selection and in the process avoiding making a circus of the whole business.
Nevertheless, various "short lists" have inevitably surfaced, culled either from background conversations with Democrats who have been interviewed by Clinton's review committee, chaired by former State Department official Warren Christopher, from cloudy crystal balls.
Four names are most prominent on these lists, although Clinton has pointedly declined to confirm that any of them are under serious consideration or that, indeed, the list has been pared to four. As anybody tuned in to the veep game knows, they are
Sens. Albert Gore of Tennessee, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania and Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana.
Each of these men would be generally regarded as a quality choice, if not necessarily the "best qualified to be president" that presidential nominees always say is their principal yardstick in making the selection. And with his own nomination already in hand, Clinton is free to pick any of them, or somebody else, without being required in the manner of some previous presidential candidates to barter the vice-presidential nomination for convention delegate support.
Still, a recent observation by Clinton appears to be complicating his task. In the wake of the Supreme Court decision upholding the Roe vs. Wade abortion decision but making it more vulnerable to conditions imposed by the states, the Arkansas HTC governor has pledged that he will present "a pro-choice" ticket to the American voters.
Clinton was highly critical of the court's decision in the Pennsylvania case, but at least two of the four on the alleged short list -- Wofford and Hamilton -- have been much less so. Their views, and Clinton's determination to solidify the pro-choice vote in this "year of the woman" when so many women are seeking office on abortion-rights stands, may be jeopardizing their chances.
Wofford, upon appointment to the Senate in 1991 by strongly anti-abortion Gov. Bob Casey, said at the time that he supported the Pennsylvania law. But now he says he supports the so-called freedom of choice bill that would restore much of the original Roe vs. Wade decision. Hamilton has said he thinks the court's latest ruling on abortion was about right, and that it was "perfectly appropriate to put some restraint" on the resort to abortion.
Gore and Kerrey by contrast appear to be more in the clear to wear the "pro-choice" label that Clinton wants to be able to hang on his running mate, although they too -- as has Clinton himself -- have expressed support for certain limitations on abortions. Gore has opposed federal funding of them and Kerrey has indicated sympathy for parental notification laws, which Clinton himself acceded to (with a judicial bypass) in legislation in Arkansas.
Clinton doubtless could claim that any of these four prospective running mates qualified as "pro-choice" in that they stand behind the basic right of abortion that survived the court's latest review of Roe vs. Wade. But he might not want to risk a lessening of enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket that might result in any side debate raised about the degree of commitment to choice by the second man on that ticket.
In the impending three-way race for the White House this fall, independent Ross Perot has also declared himself pro-choice in a general sense, but with vague reservations. Those reservations could drive abortion-rights activists and supporters into the Clinton camp, provided these voters are not also turned off by doubts about the commitment to choice on the part of the No. 2 on the Democratic ticket.
The last thing Clinton needs at next week's Democratic National Convention is any distraction over abortion rights, such as criticism of his choice of a running mate on that issue. Clinton could benefit greatly from a gender gap resulting from disenchantment with George Bush and fears of the latest macho man from Dallas, and he is likely to think twice about doing anything that may discourage it.