- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2000

The first thing that must be said about vice presidential running mates is that almost no one votes for president because of them.
Vice presidential candidates can help lead the attack on the opposition, allowing the presidential nominee to keep to the moral high ground. They can help energize their party's base. They have even been known to help carry a key state as in 1960, when Lyndon Johnson helped John F. Kennedy carry Texas (by stuffing the ballot boxes).
However, choosing a good, solid running mate is important because it is the first major decision that a presidential candidate makes that tells us something about his judgment and his skill at picking the people who will help him run the government.
It is an especially critical decision for George W. Bush because this is his first time around the national political race course, and there are obviously questions about whether he is up to the job. Voters remember his father's unfortunate decision to pick Dan Quayle, a good-looking, personable Indiana senator with little deep experience who fairly or unfairly became a national joke during Bush's presidency.
But the Texas governor has begun searching for a vice president in a way that indicates that he is going to pick someone who passes all the political tests. His choice must be somebody who can be the president if that need ever arises. Moreover, it must be someone with whom he is compatible, someone who is absolutely loyal to his administration and his agenda.
With little more than a week to go before the national convention in Philadelphia, Gov. Bush has narrowed the list down to a handful of candidates. But it is a list filled with ironies.
Irony No. 1 is that two of the four most prominent names on Gov. Bush's list are Washington insiders who did not support Mr. Bush in the primaries.
Sens. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska endorsed Mr. Bush's archrival John McCain. Moreover, one of the chief reasons they embraced the Arizona maverick's candidacy was their support for his campaign finance reform proposals, many of which Gov. Bush opposes.
Indeed, Mr. Thompson first supported Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, until he withdrew from the race. Then he backed Sen. McCain until he suspended his campaign in March. Only then did Sen. Thompson throw his support to Gov. Bush.
Since then, Sen. Thompson has performed speaking assignments as a Bush surrogate, but the two men can hardly be described as close. They actually have had little to do with one another.
What has elevated one-time actor Fred Thompson to Gov. Bush's short list? He had never held public office when he won the Senate seat held by Al Gore. Yet no one in the GOP knows more about the Clinton and Gore campaign finance scandal than Sen. Thompson, who conducted the main Senate hearings on it (although to his chagrin he let Senate Democrats hogtie the hearings, which produced few, if any, new revelations).
Why Sen. Hagel is on the list is another mystery. He is a McCain-style party renegade who has crossed swords with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and is known primarily for battling his party's leaders. Sen. Hagel sits on the prestigious Foreign Relations Committee, but he is not known as a major foreign policy leader.
Irony No. 2 is Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge, a popular Catholic governor of one of the biggest states in the Northeast whom Gov. Bush has gotten to know and like. He and Gov. Bush seem to agree on everything except for one issue: abortion.
Gov. Ridge is for a partial-birth-abortion ban, against federal funding for abortions, and in favor of parental notification; but he is otherwise pro-choice. If Gov. Bush supports the GOP platform's pro-life plank, how could he embrace a pro-choice running mate?
Equally bothersome, in light of Gov. Bush's "Catholic problem" in the primaries, is Gov. Ridge's "Catholic problem." Gov. Ridge's own pastor, Bishop Donald Trautman, said last week that he is "not a credible Catholic." He is even banned from speaking at church facilities, something you do not want hanging over your campaign when you are trying to reach out to Catholic voters.
Frank Keating, the socially conservative Oklahoma governor, is on the list because he has emerged as one of the conservative movement's most popular political figures.
Also a Roman Catholic, he has 30 years of experience in public service. He has been an FBI agent; a state legislator; a U.S. attorney; has held senior posts at Treasury, Justice and HUD; and has twice been elected governor of Oklahoma. He was re-elected with 58 percent of the vote in 1998.
Gov. Keating has cut taxes, reduced welfare rolls, and toughened educational standards. He was thrust into the media spotlight in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and won national praise for the calm, efficient and sensitive way he handled the crisis.
In the end, Gov. Bush could surprise us and choose someone who is not on the list. He has added New York governor George Pataki, another Catholic, to the list; but Gov. Pataki is also seen as pro-choice, and many think the move is just for show.
And then there is Sen. John McCain, who posed the only serious challenge Gov. Bush faced in the primaries, yet who is still seen as untrustworthy by Bush's key advisers.
But this week, the Zogby poll showed Gov. Bush's lead over Al Gore shrinking to 4 percent. If the presidential polls continue to tighten up between now and the convention, "don't rule out McCain," says a GOP leader close to both men. "If JFK could pick LBJ, even though they hated each other, Bush could still pick McCain."


Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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