Treading gently into the race's forgive-and-forget phase

March 24, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain has now been welcomed back to the Senate by Republican colleagues, some of whom felt the lash of his tongue during the recent primaries. And Vice President Al Gore has made a New Jersey odyssey in praise of Bill Bradley, the man he cut to ribbons in his party's primaries. The forgive-and-forget phase of presidential politics has begun.

Although both Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley bowed out of their races with less than enthusiastic support for the men who vanquished them, both the Republican and Democratic parties are hopeful that if not the losers themselves, then their supporters will fall briskly in line behind prospective nominees Gov. George W. Bush and Mr. Gore.

And although both Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley have said categorically they will not accept a vice-presidential nomination, the special reform constituencies they could bring to each ticket inevitably will keep speculation alive.

It's happened before, in the face of the most categorical statements of unavailability. In 1980, when the Texas governor's father, George H.W. Bush, was competing with Ronald Reagan for the GOP nomination, he came up with a seemingly escape-proof disavowal. "Take Sherman and cube it," he said, when asked whether he would take the No. 2 spot.

That was a reference to Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's statement to the Republican National Convention of 1884 that "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected." But when Mr. Reagan offered it to Mr. Bush, Mr. Reagan didn't have to read his lips; he eagerly accepted.

Few dreamed, either, that the powerful and proud majority leader of the Senate, Lyndon Johnson, would take what many thought at the time to be an offer meant to be refused, to be John F. Kennedy's running mate in 1960.

Neither Vice Presidents Bush nor LBJ, however, had a personal grudge against the party's standard-bearer or very serious policy differences with him. Mr. Bush as a rival had criticized Mr. Reagan's plan for the economy as "voodoo economics" but quickly forgot he had said it once he was on the GOP ticket. Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley, though, came out of the primaries harboring intense dislike of the victors and both continue to espouse sharp reform of the party establishments that Governor Bush and Mr. Gore represent.

With this year's front-loaded primary calendar, in which the prospective party nominees were decided barely two months into the election year, the process has come under such heavy criticism that both parties are considering ways to delay the decisions closer to the national conventions.

But one advantage of the early decision-making is that it gives Governor Bush and Mr. Gore much time to examine the field of possible running mates and look into their personal and political closets for politically debilitating skeletons.

This circumstance contrasts with the pressure Kennedy faced the night of his nomination in Los Angeles. According to Kennedy adviser James Rowe, Kennedy's "first thought after his own nomination [was] how terrible it was that he only had 24 hours to select a vice president." And Robert Kennedy, who despised LBJ, told Mr. Rowe: "My God, this wouldn't have happened except that we were all too tired last night."

Ample time hasn't always prevented questionable choices, however. Mr. Bush in 1988 clinched the nomination early but kept his own counsel into the convention, and his surprise choice of Dan Quayle rocked the convention.

With little else of substance to be decided at the two party conventions this summer, you can count on the running-mate guessing game to go on without letup between now and then, with the names of Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley still in the pot no matter what they say. In the meantime, Governor Bush and Mr. Gore can be expected to look at their choices, as always, in terms of their self-interest in getting elected. And, it can always be hoped, in terms of the country's interest.

It has not always been thus.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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