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The Boston Phoenix Vice-Presidential Sweepstakes

Who'll be number two? The old game of geographical diversity is out the window. Both parties are looking for a strong brand name.

By Seth Gitell

MARCH 6, 2000:  By 8 P.M. on Tuesday, March 7, more than two-thirds of the delegates to both parties' conventions will have been decided. That's when the focus of the campaigns still in contention -- those of John McCain, George W. Bush, and Al Gore -- will turn toward vice-presidential picks. Behind-the-scenes operators are already preparing their lists of potential running mates.

The choices will turn on several questions. Will the campaign have to rely on geography, making a politician from a large swing state attractive? Does the presidential candidate need a running mate who can bring in a new group or constituency? Does he want to fill out the ticket with a "Mini-Me" -- someone just like himself -- the way Clinton did when he picked Gore? Finally, how imaginative will the candidate have to be in making his selection?

Some of these questions will be answered when it's clear who the GOP nominee will be. Gore's pick will surely be contingent on whether he runs against Bush or McCain -- and on who their respective running mates are. A McCain victory, for instance, would force Gore to name someone more interesting than a competent, attractive politician from an important swing state.

"This is a three-dimensional chess game," says Jay Severin, a talk-show host at local radio station WTKK and a conservative strategist. "If the Democrats are really challenged with McCain on the Republican side, then they have to roll the dice."

Perhaps befitting a race that's confounded every expectation (Bush hasn't sailed to the GOP nomination, and Bradley was a much stronger challenger in New Hampshire than expected), some potential VP choices defy conventional wisdom. The names being bandied about include Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, US Senator John Kerry (possibly running as McCain's number two), and Jesse Ventura. At this stage of the game, it's almost impossible to name who the picks will be. The one thing we can be sure of is that we will be surprised.

That said, political insiders are already whispering about who will round out each ticket. Here's what they have to say.

As different as the McCain and Bush candidacies are, they have some number-two contenders in common. First on that list is Elizabeth Dole, who is well liked in many corners of the GOP. Although she's a member of the establishment -- there has been a Bush or a Dole on every Republican presidential ticket since 1976 -- she has the ability to appeal to Democrats and independents. (Though Dole's New Hampshire endorsement of Bush in January didn't help him any.)

"Liddy Dole is a perfect choice," says Jim Nuzzo, a Republican political analyst for New England Cable News. In particular, he says, Dole would work well with Bush. "She's always been a moderate conservative. She speaks to the governor's softer side. He's going to have to reach out to the middle."

McCain might find her a bit dull, however. One Republican detractor quips that Dole "is her husband with face lifts and without the honor."

Another VP candidate who should rank high on both McCain's and Bush's lists is Tom Ridge, the governor of Pennsylvania, whose appearance on Meet the Press last Sunday reflects his rising profile. As a blue-collar Catholic with Slovak-Irish roots, Ridge has seen his stock increase since the Michigan primary, where Bush took a beating as a result of the Bob Jones University debacle. Political experts believe Bush may have done himself irreparable harm among key Northeast and Midwest Catholic swing voters by visiting a college whose head once denounced the pope as the "Antichrist." He could use someone like Ridge to stem the flow. Although Pennsylvania is on the Eastern Seaboard, Ridge himself hails from Erie, which is close to Ohio and culturally part of the Midwest. Ridge is also a war hero, having won a Bronze Star in Vietnam.

Two other candidates that should appeal to both Bush and McCain are the senators from Maine, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Both senators appeal to the middle -- and even to the left. They're pro-choice. But Collins, who was one of four Republicans to oppose the ban on partial-birth abortion, would likely drive the Christian right bananas. (Although those voters won't defect to Gore, they might stay home if she's on the GOP ticket.)

Finally, there is the GOP's dream VP: Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For Bush, who could use a move back to the middle, Powell would open the party to independents and Democrats. He could attract some much-needed black votes and carry stature on military issues and foreign policy. Says Nuzzo, who spent a stint in the Reagan White House with then-VP George Bush and names Powell as his first choice: "He's on the wish list of a lot of Republicans."

That includes McCain, who manages to mention him in almost every debate. Bush, too, would embrace Powell if given the chance. But don't hold your breath. Powell has repeatedly said he does not want to be a candidate for higher office. His wife, Alma, doesn't want him to run, and he is engaged in charity and service work in the inner city. A much more probable scenario has Powell as secretary of state -- a post he is well suited for and has indicated he would be willing to consider.

Many insiders are counting on McCain to think outside the box -- way outside -- when it comes to naming a vice-presidential candidate. Some in his camp are actually talking about a fusion ticket, pairing McCain with someone from another party. What better way to appeal to the middle than to run with a Reform Party candidate, or even a Democrat? "The idea is to not think regionally, but to focus on growing the electorate," says one strategist.

The fusion idea is intriguing. Imagine McCain running with Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Don't laugh -- respected fundraisers on both sides of the aisle are actually talking about this. McCain is one of Kerry's long-time pals in the Senate. It's even been suggested that if McCain loses the Republican nomination, he should run on the Reform Party ticket with Bill Bradley. (The Phoenix has endorsed Bradley for president, but few political consultants consider him a viable enough candidate at this point to engage in serious strategizing about who his vice-presidential picks might be.) Doug Berman, Bradley's campaign chairman, rejects this out of hand. "Bill Bradley's a Democrat. He's fought for Democratic principles for his whole career," Berman says.

Some in the Reform Party have asked McCain to accept the Reform nomination even if he makes it onto the GOP ticket, running for both parties at the same time. (This would allow the Reform Party to qualify for federal matching funds again in 2004.) If McCain were to take up such an offer, he would have to pick a vice-presidential nominee who would be acceptable to the Reform Party. Establishment names would really be out of the question in that case.

Cross-endorsement and fusion tickets have been illegal in most states since the Populist era, so that idea could be a non-starter. But the McCain team has signaled a willingness to challenge political orthodoxy in a court of law. And McCain might be able to recruit Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, who recently left the Reform Party. Ventura attracts exactly the kind of voter McCain is going after right now. The problem with a McCain-Ventura ticket, though, is that it might transform McCain's presidential effort from the Straight Talk Express into the Magic Bus. It might be just too much of a nut house for suburban voters to embrace.

There's speculation that McCain will go even further afield from mainstream politics. Some insiders are circulating the names of business leaders as potential VP picks: U.S. News & World Report suggested that the campaign was considering Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon.com. (Better check the NASDAQ before the Republican Convention.)

Vice-President Bezos may sound unlikely, but it's not nearly as improbable as a McCain-Bush ticket. Of course, Bush is just who a victorious McCain would be expected to go after if he were the type to follow a conventional path. But in the past two months, McCain's proven that he's anything but conventional. And why bother embracing the figurehead establishment candidate you've just defeated? Those suburban independents wouldn't like seeing their votes used to bring Candidate Frat Boy on the team. That would just be a replay of the '88 Republican ticket, with the younger Bush in the Dan Quayle role.

Besides, party reconciliation would not be McCain's top goal. Newspaper columnist Arianna Huffington, a McCain ally, says McCain must continue to broaden the GOP. "It would be great if we would continue his goal of reforming the Republican Party by picking an African-American," she says. Republicans may suggest Representative J.C. Watts, but he is not a real possibility. The Oklahoma Republican has hurt his political prospects with his tenure in the House leadership. He is also much more conservative than McCain.

McCain may be forced into thinking unconventionally in selecting a VP if only because the Republican-establishment candidates -- the mainstream senators and governors -- may not be willing to join him. Says one McCain ally on Capitol Hill: "Given the fact that he's made fighting pork-barrel politics a project for his 20-year career in the Senate, it makes it difficult to make and build relationships."

"It would be absurd for McCain to pick Tommy Thompson [the Wisconsin governor] or George Voinovich [an Ohio senator]," a Republican insider notes. "It would be absurd for him to pick a congressman."

Adds Severin: "He's not bound by the expectations of the Republican convention. McCain will be free to make a very unusual choice based on personal preference and electability."

The smart money says that if McCain is the nominee, he'll pair with another Republican, but one slightly out of the mainstream. A charismatic senator such as Fred Thompson of Tennessee would be an ideal choice. Thompson, like McCain, has focused on corruption within the political system. He has also emerged as an outspoken critic of Gore. Likewise, McCain could turn to New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman, the onetime Republican star whose support of abortion rights has brought her the wrath of the same conservative establishment that now has it in for McCain. Their common enemy could draw them together.

Whomever McCain chooses, look for a person who would run against the current political establishment. A ticket that pairs McCain and another nontraditional Republican could bring grief to Gore and even serve as the catalyst for a major political realignment. A Bush candidacy, no matter who his running mate is, will allow Gore to stick to his current game plan.

Bush, though, has run so far to the right that if he wins the nomination, he will need to take some risks with a running mate in order to defeat Gore in the fall. Back when Bush was considered the certain Republican nominee, the thinking was that he should choose a serious Washington insider with foreign-policy experience to give him gravitas. But given McCain's performance, it now looks as though Bush will need to reach out to independents and even some Democrats. Bush's quandary is that he must do this without alienating the religious right whose support he needs to become the nominee.

The first option for Bush is McCain himself. But McCain has ruled this out, claiming he is temperamentally ill suited for the job. Besides, the two men have developed such animosity that Bush weaseled out of calling McCain to concede after the Michigan and Arizona primaries, as is customary. As for the Republican establishment, it would probably just as soon see Gore elected as McCain. (Still, Republicans have been known to put aside their differences -- Ronald Reagan picked George Bush in 1980, after Bush had attacked his supply-side philosophy as "voodoo economics" -- so McCain could have some role to play in a Bush administration. The senator has signaled that he would consider a high cabinet post, such as secretary of state or defense, and he would likely excel at such a job.)

If McCain is out, another obvious place to look, for those seeking a more traditional candidate, is the group of Republican governors who have been key to Bush's presidential effort. But members of that clique are being crossed off the list, one after the other, as Bush finds himself upset by McCain. The most recent victim: Michigan governor John Engler, who has been gunning for a position in the White House for years. His beefy mug is now synonymous with Republican hackdom. The next one to go down in this fashion will probably be George Pataki, who completely mishandled the ballot situation in New York and hasn't rallied grassroots support for Bush. And no matter what happens in Massachusetts (where current poll numbers show McCain trouncing Bush), don't worry that Cellucci might get chosen. He's not on that list. Cellucci's got way too much baggage.

Still in play is the pro-life governor of Ohio, Robert Taft, whose great-grandfather was President William Howard Taft and whose grandfather, Robert Taft, was a senator from Ohio and a Republican presidential candidate. Picking him would allow Bush to ally himself with one of the great families of the Republican Party. But Taft would only accentuate Bush's negatives as a son of privilege. (Their campaign slogan could be "Bush-Taft: we were born on top.") If Bush wants someone from Ohio, there's always Senator George Voinovich or Representative John Kasich. Among the other Republican governors, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Michael Leavitt of Utah are still possibilities. So is Oklahoma's Frank Keating, who entered the national political eye for his deft handling of the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

The problem for Bush is that all these candidates accentuate one of his biggest negatives: the perception that the Republican establishment -- the lobbyists and business interests -- simply anointed him to be the president, with the local "bosses" -- the Republican governors -- charged with getting it done. As a Republican operative said when Fred Barnes asked him to describe a Dole-Engler ticket in 1996, "What's the picture? Two thugs." These governors look like thugs who'd pull Bush's strings. That's not presidential.

One thing is for sure: given Bush's radical tack to the right in the primaries, he'll need to reach back to the middle of the electorate in the general election. This means bad news for the kinds of familiar Washington faces that would give the ticket heft. For a while, the hottest names around were people like former defense secretary Richard Cheney, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, and Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Cheney is credited as one of the masterminds of the Gulf War, and Lugar has solid foreign-policy credentials. But these options are less in favor now.

A real long shot for Bush would be Rudolph Giuliani, whose name is circulating in some Republican circles. He has appeal among whites, Catholics, moderates, and Democrats; he could solve Bush's problems to the left; and he is respected by conservatives. Of course, Giuliani is running for New York's Senate seat, but he hasn't formally announced yet. Observers say Giuliani just wants a place on a national ticket, and the VP spot might appeal to him. Severin wonders, however, whether Giuliani would devote political capital to a candidate who has bled so much Catholic support: "The question has turned from Giuliani accepting that invitation to, when Bush calls Giuliani, will he get the answering machine?"

Even if Giuliani (or Powell, for that matter) were available, such a home run wouldn't be Bush's style. The thing about the Bushes is, they don't like to be outclassed on their own ticket (see Dan Quayle). Says one political insider: "Unlike Reagan, Carter, Clinton, the natural Bush family instinct is to pick somebody lousy. The Bushes don't like other people to step on their glory. They might pick some obscure person."

Just as Gore has run a conventionally Democratic campaign -- by reaching out to the labor unions and other core Democratic constituencies -- he can be expected to go with a conventional pick for vice-president. If Bush is the GOP nominee, that is.

Gore's people are contemplating the old rules -- go with a leading figure from a swing state. They aren't prepared to follow the example of Bill Clinton, who picked another Southern Democratic moderate as his running mate. Clinton had the confidence to know that his positives would be magnified by picking Gore, but the Gore people seem to want none of that. Gore's been in somebody else's shadow long enough.

Regardless of who the GOP nominee is, Bill Bradley will not be Al Gore's number two. That shouldn't be any surprise for anyone who witnessed the level of vitriol between the two men during the "Showtime at the Apollo" debate. The chairman of Bradley's campaign, Douglas Berman, visited Boston February 16 and vowed that the campaign will step up its aggressiveness by talking a lot about Gore's character and his conservative record in Congress.

Still, the Democrats cherish the memory of 1960, when John F. Kennedy offered the vice-presidency to Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, putting aside personal rivalry in the name of victory over the Republicans. Even if Bradley can't be the nominee, some insiders see Gore turning to a key Bradley surrogate, such as Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. One point in Kerrey's favor: like John McCain, Kerrey made himself a hero in Vietnam, where he lost part of a leg and won the Medal of Honor. But he's not a likely choice. There's a lot of simmering anger and distrust between Gore and Kerrey, and Kerrey is just starting a new life in New York City as the head of the New School for Social Research.

If Gore were to use Clinton's model of picking another talented Democrat to enhance his own prestige, a good choice would be Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Kerry would be an even stronger selection if Gore wound up running against McCain (provided, of course, that McCain didn't snag him for his own number two). Like Bob Kerrey, Kerry is a Vietnam war hero, and his stock soared nationally when he defeated Governor William Weld in the country's most hotly watched Senate race in 1996. Since then he has cemented a national reputation as a reasonable, talented, highly intelligent legislator -- with experience in economic, foreign-policy, and intelligence matters.

"John Kerry is the Democratic version of John McCain," gushes local Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh, who worked as a consultant on Kerry's 1996 Senate race. "Both have been willing to take on their parties. When John Kerry was the first Democrat to sign on to Gramm-Rudman-Hollings [a deficit-fighting measure], people were willing to drive him out of the party.

"Kerry's never taken PAC money," Marsh adds. "He's fought to reduce the deficit. He's fought to change public schools. He's a terrific campaigner. I'd be surprised if John Kerry weren't on the list."

What does Kerry have to say about serving as vice-president under Gore? "I don't know anything about that stuff. It's way premature to get into that," he says. "Gore's got to win the nomination. The worst thing you can do is get distracted by that kind of stuff. I don't think it's timely at all." Moreover, says Kerry, "you've got to see what the Republicans do. There are a lot of unknown qualities."

Besides, as one Gore supporter in Washington quips: "Yeah, get a Massachusetts liberal on the ticket. That will help Gore get elected." Some see Kerry as angling for a high cabinet post, such as secretary of state or defense, in a Gore administration. He'd be likely to land such a job, especially if the Democrats fail to take back the Senate.

Another sensible pick is Evan Bayh, the 44-year-old junior senator from Indiana. Bayh, a former Indiana governor who became a senator in 1998, is the son of Birch Bayh, himself a former senator from Indiana. He's been on the national fundraising circuit for at least a decade and is well known to Democratic activists nationwide as a player in insider circles. In Bayh's favor are his relative youth, his looks, and the primacy of Midwestern swing states to winning the general election in November.

"Show me the Democrat who can win the white Catholic vote in Indiana, Illinois -- that's the person who can help me win the election," says one leading Democrat, who puts Bayh at the top of his list of potential vice-presidential candidates. (John McCain's victory in Michigan showed that George W. Bush's blunder in going to Bob Jones University has put the Catholic vote very much into play.) "Bayh can play in the ballot both in state and beyond," the Democrat says. "Evan Bayh has proven himself a long, long, time ago. He can bring all the strands of the Democratic Party together -- both Bradley and Gore."

Henry Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant in New York, sees Bayh as a "logical choice" not only for his inherent qualities, but also for political reasons. "Geography matters," he says. "People tend to vote for people who are more like them. Bayh helps Gore where he needs the help the most."

Not everyone agrees, of course. "I've heard that 'Midwest Battleground' thesis," says William Schneider, CNN's senior political analyst. "The key states are Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. They don't know who Evan Bayh is. Evan Bayh is from Indiana. There is no such thing as regional solidarity. That is absurd."

Yet another downside for Bayh: good looks + young + Indiana = Dan Quayle.

In a year when women voters may make the difference in the election, it would be wise for Gore to pick a female candidate. One possibility is the governor of New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen. A veteran of Democratic politics -- she headed up Gary Hart's New Hampshire campaign -- Shaheen is viewed as having helped Gore launch his turnaround in New Hampshire. Another point in her favor is that Clinton insiders Mandy Grunwald and Marla Romash are on her political team. But Shaheen faces one simple problem: not enough seasoning. (There probably will be a White House post in store for her should Gore win.) Asked about vice-presidential machinations, Romash declines even to address the question. And Shaheen's press secretary, Pamela Walsh, says: "What she's said and continues to say is that she's interested in being governor of the state of New Hampshire. That's what she wants to do."

Then there's the woman Democratic activists tend to mention right away when they're listing vice-presidential possibilities: Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. But Feinstein -- along with two other Golden Staters, Governor Gray Davis and US Representative Nancy Pelosi -- has pretty much been written off because the Democrats should carry California without extra help from a VP pick. "If California's on the table, we're cooked," says a leading Democrat. "If any Democrats think we've got troubles in California, we ought to roll up the sidewalks." Syndicated political columnist Robert Novak reported on Sunday that the Gore team "has all but definitely written off" Feinstein as his running mate because it feels he has California locked up. Novak wrote that the Gore team is looking for "a vice-presidential candidate from a closely contested state," mentioning Senator Bob Graham of Florida and Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois. Picking either of these men would be in keeping with Gore's conventional, establishment-friendly run. But in a year when a John McCain can catch fire -- even if Bush is the eventual nominee -- such unimaginative picks won't help Gore win in the other 49 states.

A name that's whispered with great excitement within the Beltway, but is not much mentioned outside, is that of Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson. Richardson is smart, and he has experience with foreign policy and the United Nations; he'll become an important choice if there's an international crisis between now and the summer. And, though you wouldn't know it from his name, he brings another credential to the table: he is Hispanic and grew up speaking Spanish in Mexico City.

Says CNN's Schneider: "I've always found Richardson the most interesting of the options. He's Hispanic, but he didn't rise as a Hispanic politician. Hispanic voters can be a very powerful force in this country. They would suddenly mobilize like magic." But, Schneider adds, Richardson has one black mark against him: the security at Los Alamos. Richardson is not blamed for the scandal surrounding potential Chinese espionage at America's nuclear laboratories, but he could be linked to them. "The Republicans could make a big issue of security under the Clinton administration," Schneider says.

Asked about the possibility of running for vice-president, Richardson told Chris Matthews of CNBC's Hardball: "You're really going to get me in trouble, not just with the administration but with the vice-president, who I think will be the president." He added: "I'm a politician -- I love politics. I'd like to run for something again." When Richardson went on a dramatic health and fitness program last year, losing some 30 pounds, observers took it as a sign of his interest in higher office. The scandals at the Energy Department are his only negative.

Also on everyone's second-tier list for Gore is Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. The Senate's only Orthodox Jew, Lieberman has a reputation for independence and morality. He is a leader in the New Democratic movement, has serious foreign-policy credentials, and has added an environmental component to his portfolio, bringing him even closer into line with Gore's thinking. He has just written a book, In Praise of Public Life (Simon & Schuster), demonstrating a heightened profile during an election year. Picking Lieberman would defuse the ability of Republicans to attack Gore for standing by Clinton so loyally during the impeachment saga: the senator took on the president before the impeachment, saying of his actions that "such behavior is not only inappropriate, it is immoral and harmful." If Gore ends up facing McCain, who has vowed to "beat Al Gore like a drum" over the financing scandals, Lieberman will be even more attractive.

Some other possibilities that would be raised for Gore by a McCain victory include Senator Patty Murray of Washington and Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Then there's the ultimate wild card: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the lieutenant governor of Maryland. Townsend has developed a strong reputation in her own right, outside of the other Kennedys. Her hard work in Maryland has won her points as a real politician, popular with both New Democrats and soccer moms. A Gore-Kennedy Townsend ticket would play to the center of the Democratic establishment. It would bring the Democrats back to their roots, rekindle the old Kennedy coalition, and attract women, all at the same time.

As good as that sounds, though, one thing has been clear since New Hampshire: all the old rules are out.

Stay tuned.

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