Pa. governor eyes spot on GOP ticket

Ridge's prospects have swung wildly

June 05, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. - Tom Ridge has been a vice presidential contender longer than George W. Bush has been seeking the top job - long enough to see his prospects as a potential running mate swing as wildly as the Nasdaq composite index.

When Bush has been asked about his vice presidential choice, the name he has mentioned most often is Ridge. He's the popular Republican governor of Pennsylvania, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran with blue-collar roots and a Harvard degree.

Ridge, 54, a Roman Catholic from a Great Lakes port, would neatly balance a ticket headed by a wealthy Texas blueblood. Most of all, he could deliver one of a handful of big swing states that might decide the presidential election.

Democratic National Chairman Ed Rendell, former mayor of Philadelphia, has said that his party might still carry Pennsylvania if Ridge were Bush's pick, "but it would make it more difficult." Rendell estimated that Ridge would add 3 to 4 percentage points to Bush's statewide vote total, "which is a lot for any politician running for vice president."

Ridge refuses to engage in public speculation about his chances, even as new names continue to leak from someplace deep inside the Bush camp.

"I don't know what up or down means," Ridge said in a brief interview. "I have no idea where I am with Governor Bush."

If Ridge fails to make the ticket, it won't be the first time. In 1996, he was among those under consideration to be Bob Dole's running mate. But Dole gave Jack Kemp the nod.

Ridge insisted he's not seeking the vice presidency. But it's hard to see what more he could be doing to get it.

He endorsed Bush long before the primaries began, then raised enough money to join the "Pioneers," the elite group of those who have collected at least $100,000 for Bush's campaign. He traveled the country, to attract money for the party and its candidates, made national television appearances for Bush during the primaries, and, more recently, for himself.

Defense against the right

Lately, the Bronze Star winner - he was the first enlisted man from Vietnam elected to Congress, where he served for 12 years - has been defending himself against attacks on his right flank, one indication that he's being taken much more seriously as a vice presidential candidate this time.

A recent article in the National Review, a conservative political weekly, portrayed Ridge as a liberal because of some dovish House votes against spending on missile defense and on aid to the Nicaraguan contras.

"Give me a break," Ridge said. "My view is that [the author's] combat experience was grounded in either a lot of John Wayne movies or Nintendo."

But his support for abortion rights remains the biggest stumbling block for Ridge. He has been effectively barred by the Catholic bishop in his hometown of Erie from participating in church-sponsored events because he opposes the church's position on the issue, though he is allowed to attend Mass.

Ridge's chances weren't helped when he told a reporter in April that he thought the Republican platform's absolute anti-abortion plank, which would outlaw all abortions, should be revised or dropped.

Bush, who would allow abortions in pregnancies that result from rape or incest or that are necessary to save the life of the mother, has said he has no intention of changing the plank.

"It's gotten me in a little bit of difficulty," Ridge conceded. But he hastened to add that his desire to see the platform changed would apply only "in the ideal world. But I don't live in an ideal world. ... Republicans are and always will be a pro-life party."

Ridge, whose backing for abortion rights has never been a major bar to his political success in Pennsylvania, supports his state's restrictive abortion law, which requires a 24-hour waiting period and parental consent for minors. He also opposes the procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion.

He said he and Bush have never discussed the abortion issue.

"We discuss politics, our kids, schools, baseball, mutual friends," Ridge said. "We haven't discussed this. He's the nominee. It's his call."

At the moment, the conventional wisdom in political circles in Washington and Austin, Texas, is that Bush won't choose Ridge. Politicians in both parties figure Bush isn't willing to buck the social and religious conservatives in his party, who could wreck the unity that the Texan prizes.

If Bush wants to choose a Catholic, to help strengthen his appeal to a key swing voter group, he can turn to the popular governors of Oklahoma or Montana, who oppose abortion rights.

Of course, Bush has shown a willingness to take calculated risks in the campaign, breaking with conventional conservatism in a bid to seize the political center. If he decides he has more to gain with women voters and others alienated by his party's ties to the anti-abortion movement, Ridge could still be the name on Bush's lips when he announces his choice next month.

Bush and Ridge references

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