Running mates take center stage. Bentsen stresses `stature gap'

Lloyd Bentsen was to bring two things to the Democratic ticket: Texas, and an ideological balance that would help in the South and among conservative Democrats. But the plan doesn't appear to be working. Not only is most of the South out of reach of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, according to recent polls, but Senator Bentsen's home state now leans toward George Bush by a hefty 8 to 10 points.

``Basically it was a good ploy, but it didn't work,'' says Richard Scammon, a veteran poll taker.

``It hasn't worked so far,'' concedes Matt Reese, a Democratic consultant, about Mr. Dukakis's Texas strategy. But he optimistically points out that ``we haven't had the election yet.''

As Dukakis's poll numbers have slipped since the Democratic convention, the campaign has relied more heavily on Mr. Bentsen to attack Mr. Bush's running mate, Sen. Dan Quayle. Bentsen is campaigning across the country with the assertion that Mr. Quayle is not qualified to be ``a heartbeat away from the presidency.''

Bentsen told audiences last week that Bush, because of his choice of Senator Quayle, ``does not respect the importance and dignity of the office of vice-president.''

Many Democrats and Republicans agree that Bentsen is a major plus for the Dukakis campaign. White House pollster Richard Wirthlin recently told reporters that ``Bentsen is clearly an asset to the [Democratic] ticket.''

Jack Corrigan, the director of operations for the Dukakis campaign, says the Texan ``has added an entire new dimension to the campaign.'' Listing what he sees as Bentsen's strengths, Mr. Corrigan ticks off ``maturity, experience, and leadership.'' Corrigan says Bentsen also brings to the campaign ``a political reach to some of the Democrats who have defected in the last two presidential elections.''

Perhaps most important for the governor's campaign, though, is the hope that when the two vice-presidential nominees are lined up, Lloyd Bentsen ``is a flat-out winner for Mike Dukakis on the question of judgment,'' Corrigan says.

``He brings credibility in the business community,'' adds former Democratic national chairman John White, ``particularly with the financial community along the New York-Chicago axis, on trade, and within the political spectrum from the center to the right.''

``He comes across as wise and steady and calm,'' says Jill Buckley, a Democratic consultant. ``Bentsen comes across with stature. Everything about his style and qualifications sets the stature gap. There is nothing unnerving about Lloyd Bentsen serving as president. There is about Quayle.''

Does it matter that Bentsen's record doesn't fit tightly with that of the more liberal Dukakis? No, say those backing the Democrats. ``It shows me that Michael Dukakis is reaching out to other parts of the party,'' Mr. Reese says. ``I know Lloyd Bentsen will be a faithful and supportive vice-president - but he'll have his say.''

As evidence of Bentsen's capacity, supporters point to his accomplishments in the current session of Congress. Quayle's record, they say, pales in comparison.

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Bentsen played a major role in legislation dealing with welfare reform, catastrophic health coverage, plant-closing notification, foreign trade, and the United States-Canada free-trade agreement.

Quayle, on the other hand, is better known for what he has opposed, including the intermediate-range nuclear missile treaty, plant-closing notification, and raising the minimum wage, than for what he has supported. In defending his record, Quayle focuses principally on his role in sponsoring the Job Training Partnership Act.

Yet despite Bentsen's accomplishments, Mr. Scammon says that ``while being a respected senator, he is not a national figure like Lyndon Johnson was.'' Scammon's reading of the polling data shows that most voters are unimpressed with either running mate.

Reese says he thinks the tide may still turn in Texas, where about 40 percent of the vote is still considered soft. ``We have a better chance of getting Texas with [Bentsen] than without him,'' Reese says.

``The conventional wisdom,'' says Mr. White, a Texan, ``is that if Lloyd wasn't on the ticket we would be 20 points down'' in Texas instead of 8 to 10. White - a personal friend of Bentsen - says the top of the ticket has to energize voters; all the vice-presidential nominee can do is be an effective spokesman. Bentsen's role as Dukakis's running mate is summed up by an ``old Texas saying,'' White says: ``I can provide the choo-choo, but you've got to provide the coal.''

Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster, agrees that Dukakis's present disappointing showing in the South is not Bentsen's fault. ``Rather than people looking at Bentsen,'' he says, the blame belongs to Dukakis for ``not being out front and dealing with the ideological charges of the Republicans.''

Matt Reese says there are several criteria for judging Bentsen's political effectiveness.

His performance in the debate tomorrow night.

Whether Democrats win Texas and the South.

Bentsen's help in fund-raising efforts.

The extent to which his political expertise is used by Dukakis.

``Senator Bentsen has a good political brain,'' Reese says. ``If they use him, they will make better political judgments than if they don't.''

Bentsen's first major test will come in tomorrow night's debate. The senator, who claims to be better at making deals than debates, needs to demonstrate that the fear-mongering rhetoric about Quayle is correct. If Quayle performs better than expected, Bentsen will have to hope that Southerners will find some other reason to slide back into the Democratic camp.

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