Speculation heats up on vice-president slot - who and what role? Expanded No. 2 job suggested to entice Sen. Nunn to ticket

This could be the year of the ``Super-Veep.'' The vice-presidency, often derided as a position without power, has been the butt of jokes since the beginning of the republic. President Dwight Eisenhower once warned Vice-President Richard Nixon that it could be a dead-end job for an ambitious politician.

Now there are a growing number of suggestions that the next vice-president should also hold a powerful position within the Cabinet, such as secretary of defense.

Washington insiders who are floating this idea have one man in mind: Sam Nunn, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

A number of insiders are convinced that Senator Nunn, a Georgian, would be a strong addition to a ticket led by Michael Dukakis.

With Mr. Nunn in the No. 2 spot, Democratic chances in the South might be dramatically improved.

Even Willie Brown, national chairman of Jesse Jackson's campaign, speaks highly of Nunn. The senator not only has great intelligence, Mr. Brown says, but he also would bring respect to the ticket among the nation's military hawks.

Nunn shows only lukewarm interest in the No. 2 spot. After all, he would be giving up his powerful committee chairmanship for a position that is mostly ceremonial.

But there are suggestions that Nunn might be induced to run if he were promised that he could also be secretary of defense or secretary of state.

Over the weekend, former President Nixon added another idea: If Nunn is vice-president, let him also serve as the president's national-security adviser.

``He would be first-class,'' Nixon told a television interviewer. ``Among those I have known in both parties at the present time, as far as defense policy is concerned, Sam Nunn is No. 1.''

But should anyone have two jobs: vice-president and Cabinet-level officer?

The idea horrifies some experts.

``It would be a ghastly mistake,'' says Stephen Hess, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution. ``The president should never give that sort of operational responsibility to someone he cannot fire. Constitutionally, you could do it. But it just doesn't make any sense.''

The prospect even worries some Senate insiders. One who is close to the senator wonders how it would look to the nation if a Vice-President Nunn were presiding over the Senate while it was debating the military budget written by a Secretary of Defense Nunn.

Yet the idea continues to surface. And the reason is politics. Democratic strategists calculate that they must pick up at least a few Southern states to win the White House in 1988. To do that, they need the votes of more Southern whites, who have been strongly Republican in recent presidential years.

A hawkish Democrat, in the mold of John F. Kennedy or the late Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington, could also help the ticket this year with Northern, ethnic voters, some of whom are strongly anti-communist because of their roots in Eastern Europe.

While Governor Dukakis may reject the Nunn strategy, there seems to be growing interest in a more important role for the vice-president.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was faced with a similar choice, but he rejected a plan that would have put former President Gerald Ford in the No. 2 spot as a sort of co-president.

The plan, apparently supported by Henry Kissinger, would have placed President Reagan in charge of domestic and economic policy, while Vice-President Ford would have handled foreign and military policy, with Dr. Kissinger at his elbow.

Mr. Reagan ruled the idea out at the last moment. As George Bush later explained it: ``There's only one desk in the Oval Office.''

But the search for a more substantial role for the veep goes on. And if the Democratic ticket turns out to be Dukakis-Nunn, that role could begin to emerge.

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