WASHINGTON — Let's just come out and be straight with it. No one really knows who George W. Bush is going to select as his running mate. But the guessing game is roaring along fast and furiously nonetheless.
As the GOP's convention approaches, TV, newspapers, radio, the Internet, are all filled with analyses, hypotheses, suggestions about who the lucky guy or gal will be. And the length of George W. Bush's not-so-short short list has made who's not in the running Washington's biggest question.
A sampling of names? From the House: Oklahoma's J.C. Watts and Ohio's John Kasich. From the Senate: Tennessee's Fred Thompson and Florida's Connie Mack. From the governors' mansions: Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge and New Jersey's Christie Todd Whitman. And, of course, from the wild card category: Liddy Dole and Colin Powell. (And let's not forget the John McCain factor.)
Considering the list's size, one can only wonder how C-SPAN, one of television's leading promoters of reality-based TV, missed its opportunity for its own version of "Survivor." The network has done us all a great disservice by robbing us of the chance to watch the pro-choice Whitman-Ridge alliance attempt to vote a shirtless Fred Thompson off the island. And who wouldn't tune in to hear John Kasich's proposals for a cut in the rat tax?
Bush's people say they are extremely happy with the many options available. And they point to the variety of candidates as just another sign of how open George W. is to change, to being a different kind of Republican. The list contains women and minorities, and the well-publicized mix of pro-lifers and pro-choicers.
But when you get right down to it, all the talk about a bold, different kind of selection is probably just that - talk. In the end, Bush's policy positions, poll position, and needs don't lend themselves to any radical departure in the veep stakes.
Think about it. You are George W. Bush. You have worked hard over the last year to build a marginal lead over your opponent - two to four points. This is your first major decision that everyone will be watching. Why would you choose someone that could rock the boat?
Washington is aflutter with the possibility that Bush will tap a pro-choice running mate, namely Tom Ridge, signifying a break with the past and with the Christian Right. We're in dire need of anything that could inject some life into this campaign. Right now things look so dull, ABC is planning to preempt convention coverage to show pre-season football - substituting games that mean little for speeches that mean little.
But what does Tom Ridge bring to the ticket? He's a governor who, like Bush, has limited foreign-policy experience. Bush already has a pretty decent shot of winning Pennsylvania anyway.
And, on the larger point, picking a pro-choice running mate would likely make Bush's abortion stance more of an issue, not less of one. Suddenly the questions about where exactly Bush draws the line on abortion get a lot tougher.
Bush has already gotten a lot of political mileage out of just considering a pro-choice candidate, and he can promise to name some to his cabinet, but it's hard to see the point in selecting one.
Selecting a minority, like J.C. Watts, may have its advantages, but it's not likely to get blacks, who have been strongly in Clinton's corner, to switch parties. Women, who have already warmed to Bush, may be slightly more inclined to vote for him if he picks someone like Liddy Dole.
But then we come up against the real issue Bush faces when he selects his veep. Bush's poll position is solid enough right now that he shouldn't be worried about adding voters to the mix. He should use his pick to negate some of the questions people have about him.
The biggest knock against Bush is that he is a one-and-a-half-term governor of a state where the governor has only limited powers. His proposals lack specifics. He is personable, but also highly questionable.
In short, Bush has a gravitas gap. When this campaign kicks into a higher gear following the conventions he needs someone to act as his paperweight or being "blown away" in the debates may get a whole new meaning.
Though he has taken great pleasure in being an outsider, Bush needs to tap someone who knows how Washington works. He would also do well to select someone more conservative than himself, since doing so only frees Bush to run more to the middle.
This, of course, would be a real test for W. Selecting someone known for being intelligent and commanding may raise some initial questions about the man at the top of the ticket. But in the end, a respected and polished insider is Bush's best insurance policy for other issues that will inevitably emerge down the road.
When all is said and done, it may be that Tennessee's Fred Thompson is the last man standing on Bush's "Survivor" island. He ran the campaign-finance hearings against Gore. He knows Washington. He's poised. And, maybe most important, he conveys a sense of calm control.
In the coming months, that's something Bush will need.
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