WASHINGTON -- Gov. Bill Clinton has made a characteristically cautious but politically puzzling decision in choosing Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee to be the Democratic candidate for vice president.
On the one hand, Mr. Clinton has chosen an experienced national figure apparently safe from questions about his personal history. On the other, he has chosen one whose political strengths seem almost identical to his own.
Introducing Mr. Gore to a crowd of supporters outside the governor's mansion in Little Rock, Ark., Mr. Clinton made a point of citing the elements of the Tennessee senator's resume that give him at least the paper credentials to be a good political fit -- his expertise on the environment, arms control and national security issues, his vote for the Persian Gulf war, his leadership in promoting new technologies.
"We have the best plan, and now we have the best ticket," Mr. Clinton said as a perspiring Mr. Gore applauded at his side.
"This ticket," Mr. Gore said a few minutes later, "gives our country the best chance for the change we so desperately need to move forward again."
Mr. Gore, a father of four, also made a point of confronting the Republicans on the burgeoning "family values" issue. Citing their support for a parental-leave bill, which President Bush vetoed, the Tennessee Democrat said: "The Clinton-Gore ticket is the pro-family ticket."
Democratic pollster Peter Hart said the decision "sort of hits all the bases that Clinton needs to hit. . . . He made an October choice rather than a July choice," meaning one that "excites us now but doesn't wear well."
But there is no question the choice contradicts political orthodoxy that would dictate someone from a state with a large )) electoral vote prize -- Tennessee has only 11 -- in a different region of the country. The reason may be simply that such a candidate was not available. The only big-state Democrats on Mr. Clinton's final list were Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania (23 electoral votes), whose less than two years in the Senate would be a thin credential for someone a heartbeat from the Oval Office, and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida (25), who is up for re-election this year.
Underlying the Clinton decision, however, was the understanding among Democratic professionals that it is the presidential candidate himself who wins or loses an election. That means the first requirement for a running mate is someone who won't make that more difficult.
"The last thing Bill Clinton needs in a vice president is someone who'll surprise him," said James Ruvolo, a former party chairman in Ohio. The Democrats can win the White House, Mr. Ruvolo said, "as long as we're talking about the issues we should be talking about and not our personal lives."
Some Democratic strategists also argue that in a three-way campaign -- against Mr. Bush and independent Ross Perot -- the vice presidential candidates are even less relevant to voters' decisions. Democratic New York state chairman John Marino said, "I think in this part of the country, Clinton is going to be running on his own, anyway."
If there is any direct and visible political benefit to the Democrats from the choice of Mr. Gore, it is far less likely to come because of some generational appeal to other baby boomers than because Mr. Gore reinforces the picture of the ticket as moderate in the eyes of Southern whites who have been defecting to the Republicans or sitting out presidential elections.
This is the core of the political problem for the Democrats in the South and border states: There are enough black votes so that a Democrat can win with as little as one-third of the white votes in several states, including Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina; and with as little as 40 percent to 42 percent in such others as Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma.
The Democratic candidate doesn't need a white majority and, in fact, since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, no Democrat -- not even Jimmy Carter in 1976 -- has won a single Southern state on the strength of the white vote. But liberals like Walter Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis have found it impossible even to get the minority share they need -- a goal party operatives believe obtainable this year with Mr. Perot in the mix. And it is here, the theory goes, that Mr. Gore would be helpful.
Mr. Clinton's choice of another Southern moderate was likely to cause some grumbling among the party's liberal activists, many of whom found it hard to swallow the Arkansas governor himself.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's reservations were clear when he said that "Al Gore is a credible person" but that this was "a fairly narrow ticket." Mr. Jackson said that he wondered where there was something for the cities and for New York, California and the big industrial states of the Midwest.