WASHINGTON — The Great Mentioner is already weighing in.
Long before any voters have cast ballots for who they'd like at the top of the presidential tickets, the nation's political "buzz factory" - party activists, pundits, and the press - is already spewing out names of possible vice-presidential candidates for the November 2000 election.
Some of the speculation stems from sheer journalistic boredom: The campaign is moving at such warp speed - "Why not just have the election now and get it over with?" one political editor quipped - that, in a strange logic, veep-talk makes sense.
Underlying all the talk is an assumption (right or wrong) that Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore will head their parties' respective tickets. The logical next question, then, is who will run with them?
Women figure more prominently in veep speculation than ever: Both parties are mindful of the all-important women's vote, which has typically gone Democratic. They also know that issues important to women top the national agenda - health care, education, and Social Security - and that putting a woman on the ticket would give symbolic weight to those issues.
"This is enormously different from 1984," the first time a major party put a woman on its ticket, says Marie Wilson of The White House Project, which aims to elect a woman president in the next 10 years. "You've had 16 more years for people to see women in leadership."
Women to watch
For the Republicans, Governor Bush's lead against Mr. Gore among women in early polls presents a major opportunity. They want to lock in that advantage, and what better way to do it, the reasoning goes, than to put former Red Cross chief Elizabeth Dole - the GOP's highest profile woman, herself running for president - on the ticket?
The Democratic "mentioning machine" is countering with its own list of women: California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is deemed by far the most qualified Democratic woman to run for No. 2, but other names that pop up include New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, California's other senator, Barbara Boxer, and even a lieutenant governor - Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of Maryland.
Still, many considerations besides gender will go into the running-mate selection - ideology, geography, public persona, personal chemistry. "It's an opportunity for [Bush and Gore] to show that they can make a tough choice," says Paul Light, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution here.
So even if, ultimately, a vice-presidential selection has little bearing on how voters vote, presidential candidates know they can have an indirect impact - either by satisfying one wing of their party or making a statement to an important constituency or simply adding heft to the overall "look" of the ticket.
Bill Clinton's selection of Gore in 1992 fell into the last category: Gore added nothing in terms of age, race, gender, ideology, or geographic origin, but analysts say he did add gravitas, by virtue of his national and international experience, things Mr. Clinton lacked.
Bush, if he holds onto his lead, may feel he needs to satisfy the social-conservative wing of the GOP. This may rule out Mrs. Dole, who has staked out some moderate positions. A more conservative Republican woman who might fill that bill is Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. But two Texans on the ticket? It hardly makes sense.
Running well behind Bush for the Republican nomination is a whole crowd of conservatives - but it's hard to imagine any of them on the ticket with Bush, and anyway, nominees rarely select someone who ran against them. Still, one name that pops up frequently for Bush is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a former Vietnam prisoner of war with a reputation as a maverick. His unorthodox-for-a-Republican positions on campaign finance and tobacco legislation may make him unpalatable for the GOP ticket.
Republican "mentioners" have also brought up Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and New York Gov. George Pataki, both moderates but also both from key electoral-vote states.
On the Democratic side, the mentioned include new Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, dubbed a "clone" of Gore for his centrism and as the son of a former senator, and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who is Mexican-American.
Let's make a deal?
The craftiest move Gore could make would be to woo former Sen. Bill Bradley onto the ticket with him - as soon as possible. Because Mr. Bradley is Gore's only opponent in the Democratic primary, getting him out of the way early would lock in Gore's nomination.
"If I were Al Gore, I'd do it - now," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University here. "Whenever the Democrats have been in power and have had a big party fight, they have lost. It's a 100 percent correlation."