As Gore, Bush sit pretty, aspirants vie to be No. 2

Hopefuls campaign ever so discreetly for vice presidency

March 11, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Recently, the Democratic leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives mailed an 85-page sheaf of printed material to dozens of national news organizations.

Its message: Gov. Tom Ridge, widely mentioned as a running mate for George W. Bush, is not vice presidential timber.

The Stop Ridge mailing is one small part of the shadowy contest for the vice presidency. Now that the presidential nomination battles are over, the competition for second place on the Democratic and Republican tickets is heating up.

Not that anyone cares to admit that such races exist.

One of the oldest myths of American politics is that no one runs for vice president. After all, what statesman worth the title would admit to aspiring to become, in effect, standby equipment?

But the experiences of Vice President Al Gore -- now nominee-to-be Gore -- and former President George Bush, who was previously vice president, are proof that the office is worth much more than the proverbial pitcher of warm spit.

Which is why various vice presidential contenders in both parties have been out on the trail for months, pursuing the office as discreetly as possible.

They've appeared alongside Gore or Bush at campaign events. They've also ventured out as surrogate speakers for the presidential candidates in key states or on TV talk shows.

Delicate matter

Within the Gore and Bush camps, the vice presidential selection process is starting in earnest, though officials are loath to discuss it publicly.

"We haven't started thinking about it yet," insists Doug Hattaway, a Gore campaign spokesman, when asked how the vice president plans to screen candidates.

"It's still premature to talk about that," says Scott McClellan, a Bush spokesman.

A source close to the process in one of the camps says the business of finding a running mate is so politically delicate that it is best treated as if it were a classified military operation.

"These are things that you have to deny even exist," says the source.

For Bush and Gore, it will be the most important decision between now and Election Day. Each man is likely to let the suspense build before revealing his choice around the time of the national conventions this summer.

In both parties, the roster of vice presidential possibilities is long and getting longer. But just because political insiders, including some of the campaign strategists who will have a say in the process, might be throwing around various names, there is no guarantee that the eventual choice has been mentioned yet.

GOP possibilities

Topping the Republican list is retired Gen. Colin Powell, who could hand his party a dream ticket if he agreed to run with Bush.

Other serious possibilities include Ridge, the Pennsylvania governor and a longtime Bush friend whose glittering resume includes Harvard, Vietnam and Congress. His blue-collar upbringing and Catholic faith could appeal to independent swing voters, though his support for abortion rights might cause problems with the religious right.

Another potential choice is Elizabeth Dole, who made more than a dozen campaign stops on Bush's behalf after ending her presidential try. Perhaps the clearest sign of her desire for the second spot was the fact that her husband, former Sen. Bob Dole, never endorsed his old friend Sen. John McCain, which could have interfered with his wife's ambitions.

Two prominent Senate supporters of McCain might be considered: Fred Thompson, a Tennessean with star power, and Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran-turned-entrepreneur from Nebraska.

Bush's fellow governor and Yale classmate, George Pataki of New York, clearly wants the job, though he is considered a long shot. Another possibility is Bush's southwestern neighbor, the popular Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, with potential appeal to Catholics and a background in law enforcement at the Justice Department in Washington.

Former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, a Bush adviser in private business in Texas, would be a dark-horse choice. But the former Wyoming congressman and White House chief of staff would add gravitas to the Republican slate.

Two unlikely picks

In 1980, a second-place finish in the presidential race was Bush's father's big break, landing him a spot on Ronald Reagan's ticket. But neither of this year's runners-up is likely to make it.

McCain has said he has no interest in the job, and Bush isn't expected to offer it. The freewheeling senator is ill-suited to a job that puts a premium on sticking to the boss' script, and besides, the wounds of this winter's fierce Republican fight aren't likely to heal anytime soon.

Former Sen. Bill Bradley was once considered a good prospect to join Gore on the ticket. But his lackluster performance in a Democratic contest that got personally nasty at times probably eliminated any chance of that.

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