WASHINGTON -- When Gov. Bill Clinton seriously embarked on his search for a running mate, he specified that he would not take geography or other traditional factors into consideration. Rather, he said, he would select a person who would be clearly recognized as qualified to succeed to the presidency if necessary.
That is, to be sure, what they all say. And it can be argued now that he did not take geography into consideration, in the traditional sense of selecting someone from a region other than his own to provide geographical balance, which is what presidential nominees nearly always do. Indeed, only once in the history of the Republic, 164 years ago, did a presidential candidate from the South, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, choose and win with a Southern running mate, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.
Still, geography was an obvious factor in Clinton's selection of Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee. With prospective independent candidate Ross Perot running strongly in the polls in the South, the outlook at this point is that Perot can loosen the Republican stranglehold on Dixie over the past 12 years. If so, Clinton, who swept the Democratic primaries in the South, would have a fighting chance to take some states there away from President Bush.
Such a Southern strategy is a gamble, as Jesse Jackson immediately pointed out after Clinton's announcement. Jackson raised the question of how this all-Dixie, moderate ticket will sell the big Northern cities and among labor voters who have supported more liberal Democrats in the past.
But Clinton demonstrated in decisively winning this year's primaries in New York and California, and in industrial Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania, that he has appeal in the large cities and among organized labor. It is true that turnout in all these primaries was low, indicating that Democrats need to be stirred up more for Clinton to win these states in November.
In Gore, he has selected a seasoned politician who, like himself, is an experienced campaigner and a member of the post-World War II generation coming of age in national politics. Clinton has been striving mightily against the Perot phenomenon to be seen as the real candidate of change, and that objective should be advanced by a ticket whose standard-bearer will be 46 next month with a running mate who is 44.
Gore's age and youthful appearance also should take some of the curse off the fact that after 16 years in Congress he is one of the Washington insiders against whom Clinton has been railing all year. (Gore, in fact, spent most of his younger years living in Washington, where his father Albert Sr. was a distinguished member of the Senate.) If the Clinton-Gore team is elected, Gore could be helpful dealing with Congress -- in keeping with Clinton's arguing point that only a Democratic president can break the Washington legislative gridlock.
Finally there is Clinton's commitment to select a running mate "ready to immediately assume the office" of president if anything happened to him. While Gore may not be everyone's idea of presidential, he has considerably more stature and presence than Dan Quayle did when Bush picked him in 1988.
Clinton's strategists obviously hope that Gore will come off compared with Quayle as well as 1988 vice-presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen did, and that the Democrats will be able to exploit Quayle's low standing in the polls and high rating as joke material. Bentsen, however, couldn't save Michael Dukakis. But in a close three-way race, Gore might help marginally in Dixie, as another Southern running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson, appeared to help John F. Kennedy in 1960.
And finally, in this television era, Gore's handsome family -- four good-looking kids and a blond wife who has fought the recording companies over offensive lyrics -- certainly won't hurt in a campaign in which the Republicans hope to use "family values" as a way to remind voters, among other things, of Clinton's admitted marital difficulties.
Perhaps Al Gore isn't "the best qualified" Democrat around to stand a heartbeat from the presidency, but he isn't likely to be a target either, the way Quayle has been. And that in itself is a recommendation.