Bush seeks own veep, not party's favorite

May 29, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Did you see where Gov. George W. Bush sent out letters to 450 prominent fellow Republicans around the country the other day asking for their advice on picking a running mate?

It's an old device, going back at least as far as Richard Nixon 32 years ago, to massage the recipients and make them feel they have a say. They seldom have, because the factors that go into selecting a vice presidential nominee don't lend themselves to a referendum. Most often, they depend on the presidential nominee's political and personal requirements and desires.

To Governor Bush's credit, he said in the letter his "primary concern is to select someone who is capable of serving as president of the United States." Most presidential nominees say that but often don't mean it. The Texan's own father certainly could not have made that judgment about the man he picked in 1988, the hapless Dan Quayle. He later was quoted as saying he had made a mistake in his choice.

Although the senior Bush's selection of Mr. Quayle didn't cost him the election in 1988, it was an embarrassment to him thereafter. In 1992, an internal campaign poll was taken to ascertain how Mr. Quayle and other possible choices might affect the GOP ticket's prospects. It was inconclusive and Mr. Quayle remained. Dumping him, some of Mr. Bush's strategists warned, would only remind voters that he had picked Mr. Quayle in the first place.

Interestingly, among those whose names were bandied about as a replacement at the time was Dick Cheney, Mr. Bush's secretary of defense, who now is heading the George W. vice presidential search. Mr. Cheney obviously remembers the Quayle fiasco, and his recollection, as well as George W.'s memory of his father's experience with Mr. Quayle, argues for the choice of someone not vulnerable to charges of being a lightweight.

In any event, for a prospective presidential nominee to say he wants as his running mate "someone who is capable of serving as president" is not inconsistent with also applying the usual political yardsticks such as geography and ideology. A number of prominent Republicans could bring "balance" to the ticket and at the same time make good presidents if fate so dictated.

Just one example, not being mentioned seriously as a prospect, is Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who comes from the Midwest and like George W. is a moderate conservative. As one of the most highly regarded members of the Senate, especially in the foreign policy field where Governor Bush's own credentials are weak, few would argue Mr. Lugar wouldn't be up to the top job.

Even if overwhelming sentiment for one or another GOP leader is expressed among the 450 Republicans whose views have been solicited, however, a very personal factor very likely will come into play -- whether George W. likes him or her. In recent years, personal compatibility often has been a major consideration in the selection of running mates. Bill Clinton and Al Gore hit it off so well in 1988 that when they took their new partnership on the road after the Democratic convention, it was an instant hit and a boost to the Democratic ticket.

If a clear majority of those Republicans polled this year favors somebody George W. already is leaning toward, their views may carry some weight. But if a majority comes up with somebody he can't abide, it won't matter how many prominent supporters that person has recommending him.

Back in 1968, Nixon used the letter-writing ploy, as well as two convention meetings with the elite of the Republican Party, to massage his fellow Republicans. The name of his eventual choice, little-known Gov. Spiro Agnew of Maryland, got hardly a mention from anybody. But Nixon liked him and that was all that mattered -- at that time, anyway, though later Nixon had plenty of cause to regret his choice.

As an internal party public-relations gambit, George W. sending out all those letters won't do any harm. In the end, though, it will be his choice. Some responders may help by pointing out the hazards of making a bad selection, but as his father's son, he already is forewarned.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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