TONIGHT, Democrats nominate Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. as Bill Clinton's running mate, an effort to reinforce a new moderate look for the party.
Traditionally, running mates matter little to the outcome of elections.
But 1992 is not a traditional election year. With three major candidates in the race, small margins become more critical and Mr. Gore may be somewhat more significant in the campaign than vice presidential candidates usually are.
One reason is the high profile of Vice President Dan Quayle. Unusually controversial, Mr. Quayle has become the White House's aggressive campaigner, notes former Democratic national chairman John White. "So it's very important that you have somebody who can go belt-buckle to belt-buckle with the vice president," he said at a Monitor luncheon here.
Gore and Quayle also make a classic left-right matchup on the environment. Gore has impeccable credentials as an environmentalist. He wrote a well-reviewed book on the subject and led the Senate delegation to the United Nation's environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro last month.
Quayle has made a crusade of defending the economy against environmental regulation. He has used a White House council he chairs to sharply prune the sweep of rules and regulations, much to the consternation of environmentalists in Congress and some federal agencies.
The debate they will inevitably hold this fall may generate strong public interest. Yet the potential political impact is more risk than opportunity.
"Generally speaking," says Paul Light, a University of Minnesota political scientist who has studied the vice presidency, "vice presidential candidates can hurt more than they can help."
Polls over the decades show that vice-presidential candidates can deliver potentially 1 to 3 percentage points to the national vote total, says Dr. Light.
More likely, a vice presidential candidate who is an asset to his running mate adds a percentage point "here and there" to his ticket's margin.
But in a three-way race, adds Light, "the margins can be very, very tight" and the difference could be critical.
Four years ago, Quayle was clearly a drag on the Republican ticket after his scathing introduction to the public through charges of Vietnam avoidance, never substantiated, and pampered inexperience. His public image was dismal. A Gallup post-election study concluded that he probably cost the Bush ticket 2 percentage points from its winning margin.
And the contrast between Quayle's image of callow youth and that of his opposite, the suave veteran Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, could hardly have been sharper, notes Bill McInturff, a Republican strategist.
The vice-presidential contenders could also leap to an unusual prominence if it appears that Ross Perot, Mr. Clinton, and President Bush are all running close enough to throw the election to the House of Representatives, says Mr. McInturff.
Then the Senate would separately elect a vice president from the top two finishers from the popular election, raising the possibility of a president and vice president from opposing parties.
For the Clinton campaign, the first task in choosing a vice president is to do no harm. The Gore choice is safe, since the senator has been through a presidential campaign already and emerged with his personal reputation unscathed.
The choice avoids the traditional balancing of the ticket across geographical regions or the ideological spectrum. William Galston, a fellow at the Smithsonian's Wilson Center and Democratic policy architect, calls it a "very deliberate effort to reinforce change."
The traditional liberal image of the Democrats is entrenched enough that change needs reinforcement, says Dr. Galston. The message is that both Clinton and Gore come from the moderate wing of the party that stresses growth ahead of redistribution of income.
Gore does shore up some of Clinton's weak spots, however. Clinton's record on the environment in Arkansas is controversial enough to present some opportunities for Republican attack. Gore makes such an environmental debate more of a match.
Gore's strength on the environment, Democrats hope, will strengthen the ticket with young voters, who are disproportionately Republican.
Republicans note Gore's environmentalism could cut the other way, however. "In this economy, people don't like unnecessary regulation," says Republican consultant and Mississippi lawyer Haley Barbour. "Most people care more about jobs than about snail darters," he says, in reference to an endangered fish that stymied a Tennessee dam. The Gore family adds another kind of balance to the ticket. Hillary Clinton, the candidate's wife and a prominent Little Rock attorney, has developed a negative public image
for a sometimes abrasive style.
Tipper Gore, Senator Gore's wife, while an outspoken activist for labeling music with obscene lyrics, in person has a softer image. On one hand, says Republican consultant Eddie Mahe, "Tipper Gore offsets Hillary to a very significant degree."
On the other hand, political spouses have even less impact on campaigns than vice presidential candidates. Barbara Bush, McInturff says, has the status nearly of an icon, yet she has little apparent impact on her husband's popularity.
"It would be a pretty unique campaign if any of that registered enough to make a difference," says McInturff.