DEFYING the historical tradition of regional balance, Democrats will march into the fall campaign for the White House with two Southerners at the head of their ticket.
Bill Clinton, winner of the Democratic presidential primaries, revealed yesterday that he had chosen Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee as his vice-presidential running mate.
The Clinton decision throws down a daring challenge to President Bush and the Republicans, who see the South as their strongest base in the presidential race.
The Clinton-Gore ticket also presents a generational threat to the Republicans and to independent candidate Ross Perot. Both Clinton and Senator Gore are in their mid-40s. They represent the huge baby-boom generation born after World War II - constituting nearly one-third of United States voters - who are just moving into prominent positions of political and economic power.
Clinton's decision immediately drew both positive and negative assessments.
Tom Cronin, a well-known political scientist at Colorado College, predicted that Gore would be a popular choice. Dr. Cronin says Clinton, in essence, "breaks the mold, and does what is right, rather than balancing things out" for political reasons.
On the other hand, Theodore Lowi, a political scientist at Cornell University, and a native of Alabama, calls it a "foolish" move, an attempt to revert to the Southern-dominated Democratic Party of 60 years ago.
"The Democrats have deep roots as a Southern party, but they cannot win that way," Dr. Lowi says. He would have preferred that Clinton choose someone from the West, which he says will be the real battleground in 1992.
Even so, Gore's selection was immediately popular with many Democrats who know him and admire his close family life, his clean image, and his intellect. One Western Democratic senator says Gore probably is the brightest person in the Senate.
Although critics question Clinton's South-South strategy, others suggest that Gore gives the ticket important balance in other ways:
* While Clinton's strong suit is domestic policy, including education and the economy, Gore's burning interests are the environment, foreign policy, defense, and arms contol.
* While Clinton's avoidance of military service during the Vietnam War became an issue in the primaries, Gore, the son of a former US senator, served with the Army from 1969-71, including duty in Vietnam.
* While Clinton's wife, Hillary, is a liberal, career-oriented lawyer who has derided the notion of staying home and baking cookies, Gore's wife, Mary Elizabeth "Tipper" Gore, is a family-oriented, conservative woman. Mrs. Gore is best known, perhaps, for angering Hollywood types by her crusade against rock music lyrics that glorify satanic worship, violence, and sex.
Gore also brings other advantages. He ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, and although he was unsuccessful, he picked up valuable experience as a national campaigner. As part of the Clinton ticket, he can hit the ground running. Further, Gore has undergone close media scrutiny without damage to his impeccable reputation.
The bottom-line question for the two Democrats is: Can they win? One year ago, the answer would certainly have been no. But two factors have changed that: President Bush's decline in popularity, and the unexpected entry of Texas billionaire Ross Perot.
Bush's major problem clearly is the economy. As it has weakened, his ratings in the polls have dipped. With unemployment climbing to 7.8 percent last month, the highest in years, and with joblessness even higher in key election states like California (9.5 percent), the outlook for the president is grim.
Perot adds another interesting twist to this campaign. His greatest strength appears to be in states like California, Texas, and Florida - essentially the West and the South - just where the Republicans do best.
Democrats ask: What if Perot splits the Republican and independent vote in those ordinarily GOP states? Does that give Clinton a shot at once-impossible targets like Florida and Texas?
In addition, despite his Southern credentials, Gore, some analysts say, has an appeal that will do well in non-Southern states like California and New York. On the environment, a critical issue particularly in the West, Gore's record is "impressive," Dr. Cronin observes.
Indeed, Gore's new book on the environment, "Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit," has drawn rave reviews. Cronin was so impressed with it ("I never remember reading a book by a public official that has so much impact") that he bought a copy for his son.