- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2000

Poor Al Gore, he doesn't seem to have much to choose from in the way of vice presidential running mates. After George W. Bush scored a 10 by choosing Richard B. Cheney as his running mate to resoundingly positive reviews from the news media and even some of Mr. Bush's opponents Mr. Gore is finding this a tough act to follow.

Making matters even worse, the political base of his party is so frayed and fractured Mr. Gore may be boxed into choosing a running mate solely to help him secure that base. Not exactly a strong, uplifting rationale for picking someone who could be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Late last week, Sen. John Kerry's political advisers told me he was asked by the Gore campaign for his tax returns, a new sign Mr. Gore may be thinking much more seriously about putting the liberal Massachusetts Democrat on the ticket.

Mr. Cheney's place on the Republican ticket has worked to Mr. Kerry's advantage, say the senator's strategists. Their reasoning: Mr. Gore must have someone with strong credentials in foreign policy and national security issues to go up against a former defense secretary who helped win the Persian Gulf war.

Mr. Kerry is a Vietnam veteran and he could remind voters that Mr. Cheney took full advantage of college and family deferments to avoid the war. He also sits on the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, while he is not a leader in its debates and battles, he is conversant with the foreign policy issues of our time.

Mr. Kerry pales in comparison with Mr. Cheney when you consider Mr. Cheney's vast experience: defense secretary, White House chief of staff, a leader in Congress. But Mr. Gore's strategists think Mr. Kerry's youthful, energetic, telegenic image would sharply contrast with that of the older-looking, low-key Mr. Cheney.

Still, say Mr. Kerry's detractors, he is a Massachusetts tax-and-spend liberal right out of the land of Teddy Kennedy and Michael Dukakis. In an era of center-right politics, his place on the ticket would only reinforce Gore's own liberalism and give the GOP a big fat target to shoot at in the fall.

Further complicating the vice president's search for a running mate is the dismal realization throughout much of the party that he still has not solidified his political base and he may need someone who can help him do that.

That is why Mr. Gore is giving an old leftist warhorse another once-over. He is Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, an archliberal crusader who is popular with the party's base among farmers and organized labor, especially in the pivotal Midwest battleground states. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who is handling the vice presidential search for Mr. Gore, has met twice with Mr. Harkin to discuss the No. 2 spot. Under any other circumstances, someone as liberal as Tom Harkin would probably not be considered. But polls show Mr. Gore doing so poorly in critical states in the Midwest losing nearly 40 percent of union households to Mr. Bush that House Democratic leaders are scared further erosion of the party's base will kill their chances of winning back the House.

As of last week, Mr. Gore was running behind in traditionally Democratic states like Washington, Oregon and West Virginia; struggling in Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin; and in a dead heat in Connecticut and Maryland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1.

House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, whom Mr. Gore still wants on the ticket but who has turned it down, is said to be pushing the fiery Iowa populist to help Mr. Gore boost Democratic turnout. But here again, Mr. Harkin who never met a tax or a spending program he didn't like could expose Mr. Gore to a barrage of GOP criticism that he is taking the party back to the days of George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

There are others on Mr. Gore's short list, but they are not candidates anyone in the party leadership can really get excited about.

Lackluster Sen. Bob Graham of Florida is seen as a regional "one state candidate." He might help Gore tip Florida into his column, but beyond that, he brings nothing to the ticket on a national scale.

Former Senate Democratic Leader George Mitchell of Maine is waiting in the wings, but he has slipped in consideration over the past week. Besides being another unreconstructed liberal who still pines for the New Deal, Mr. Mitchell would make Mr. Gore look exciting.

Then there is Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, the former two-term governor who is far too conservative for the left wing of his party. His recent vote for the partial-birth abortion ban enraged the National Organization for Women, who warned Mr. Gore not to pick him as his running mate.

As the Democrats prepare to gather in Los Angeles in two weeks to anoint Al Gore as their standard-bearer, he is pulling out old, liberal, class-warfare themes to run on while looking left for a running mate to help him stitch his party's base back together.

With just three months to go before the November election, the ghosts of Messrs. McGovern, Mondale and Dukakis are haunting the Democratic Party once again.

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

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