On to veeps and greater intrigue

March 19, 2000|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- At the Betty Ford Clinic for Recovering McCainaholics, despondent journalists are in a 12-step program for coping with the boredom that is, they believe, their fate, now that their hero has been sidelined. Any journalists capable of being bored when this continental superpower is choosing a chief executive need career counseling more than therapy. However, perhaps they can be stimulated by speculation about "state" or "category" strategies for selecting vice presidential nominees.

Running mates are parts -- usually, but perhaps not this time, small parts -- of the game of "Getting to 270," the winning electoral vote total. Only in 1960, when Lyndon Johnson held most of the South for John Kennedy, was a running mate crucial. But this election may be akin to the cliffhangers of 1976, 1968 and 1960, so a small advantage can be determinative.

But will the election be close? Conventional wisdom is that current polls, showing a dead heat, are grim news for George W. Bush because his double-digit lead over Al Gore last year has vanished. Actually, the dead heat should worry Mr. Gore. He is in his fourth national campaign; he coasted to nomination victory aided by peace, prosperity and a president with high job-approval ratings. Mr. Bush, a rookie at the national level, had an awkward shakedown process during the dust-up with Mr. McCain. Mr. Gore's campaign is at an apogee. Mr. Bush's is not. And the race is tied.

When comparing those states that voted in 1992 and 1996 for Bill Clinton and those that voted for President George Bush and Bob Dole, only five states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Montana, with 57 electoral votes) voted once for each party. The 16 states that voted Republican twice in the 1990s have 135 electoral votes. The 29 states and the District of Columbia that voted Democratic twice have 346.

Analyst Charlie Cook calculates that 16 states with 135 electoral votes are strongly for Mr. Bush, and eight with 74 are leaning toward him. Mr. Gore is virtually assured of D.C. and six states with 71 votes and is strong in nine others with 136. Mr. Cook believes the election's focus will be 11 states with 122 electoral votes: Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania.

Both Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush can make a traditional "state" choice -- someone with special drawing power in one or more of the battleground states. But Mr. Bush has better opportunities than Mr. Gore has for making a dramatic "category" choice, one calculated to have an impact on a large category of people nationwide or in several large states.

The most plausible woman available to run for vice president, and the most plausible African-American, are both Republicans -- Elizabeth Dole and Colin Powell. Republicans nominate first this year, and if Ms. Dole is chosen, Mr. Gore might be under pressure to choose a woman, perhaps Maryland's Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who is not a national figure and is from a state Mr. Gore will carry anyway. Ms. Dole would help Republicans close what is called the "gender gap," but perhaps would not help dramatically because the phrase "gender gap" is misleading.

The Democrats' advantage among women is largely provided by huge support among African-Americans and Hispanics. Mr. Bush today is winning among white women, and almost certainly among all married women. So the category "gender" is a misleading overlay on a class division. Who else could have a broad impact on a category of voters? Colin Powell, of course.

General Powell's experience in defense and foreign policy, and the fact that he is pro-choice and favors affirmative action, would help insulate Mr. Bush from certain skepticism. And Gen. Powell's appeal to minorities would wonderfully scramble America's political arithmetic. Based on current evidence, including recent primaries, carrying New York will be very difficult for Mr. Bush, and California even more so. Together they have 87 electoral votes, about one-third of 270, and no one has ever been elected president while losing both. If Mr. Bush is not competitive in those states, Mr. Gore can husband his time and money for elsewhere. If Mr. Bush does not strongly compete in California, that might depress Republican turnout enough to cost more Republican congressional seats than the Republicans' current House majority (five). A Bush-Powell ticket puts both states, with their large minority populations, in play.

If General Powell would rather be secretary of state than vice president, fine. There is no constitutional impediment to being both. What better apprenticeship could there be for what a vice president is, a president-in-waiting?

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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