AFTER Bob Dole's swift march to the Republican nomination, the contest for the bottom half of the ticket may be more suspenseful than the race for the top.
Unlike the field that sought the party's banner, Senator Dole's likely list of running mates is without its front-runner. Despite confident statements from hopeful GOP leaders, retired Gen. Colin Powell seems adamant about not seeking public office.
Without Mr. Powell's popularity to lean on, Dole's decision becomes more urgent. For months, the senator has defied definition. He supports the ideas of tax reform, balancing the budget, and reforming affirmative action, but he offers few specifics. Dole's rivals criticize him for having "no ideas." Thus, his choice could say a lot about the message he will offer against President Clinton in the fall and how he will unite the party behind him.
In all likelihood, that augers well for a short list of GOP governors who have been champions of the GOP's new federalism and represent key electoral college states. "Dole lacks an issue and has negative charisma," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington. "He'll have to balance the ticket in terms of religion and geography, and with someone from outside Washington. All that points to the four Midwestern governors."
Those leaders include: George Voinovich of Ohio; John Engler of Michigan; Jim Edgar of Illinois; and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin. All have endorsed Dole. All come from states Clinton won in 1992 and are vital to taking the White House. All want the job, or, in the nuanced courtship of vice-presidential politics, "wouldn't reject it."
The flurry of speculation over how Dole will round out the ticket is, of course, premature. The campaign is just beginning internal debate on the subject. But Dole raised the curiosity of press and pundits alike with comments last weekend about Powell.
The senator's interest in the general is understandable. An ABC/Washington Post poll last weekend showed Dole could erase a 9-point deficit versus Clinton by adding Powell to the ticket. The general has the broadest appeal of any potential candidate among disenchanted voters.
Powell isn't moved. "It really irritates me that a few people are purporting to speak for me, stirring up this feeding frenzy about my running for vice president," he told the Chicago Sun Times Sunday.
In all probability, Dole's selection of a running mate will go hand in hand with fashioning a message to beat Clinton. The president yesterday unveiled a repackaged plan for $100 billion in tax cuts to the middle class. That follows the campaign blueprint he laid out in his State of the Union address that included deficit reduction and welfare reform.
Each of the four Midwestern governors provides a counterweight on such issues. Governor Engler, for instance, eliminated a $1.8 billion deficit in his first term by shrinking state government. Mr. Thompson has led the nation in welfare reform.
If the general election comes down to a battle for the lunch-pail vote, the four states these governors represent will be crucial. No Republican has won the White House without carrying Ohio. The "rust belt" blue-collar vote was a vital swing bloc for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and Clinton in 1992.
Another aspect Engler, Thompson, and Voinovich bring to a Dole ticket is religion. All three are Roman Catholic. Some 20 to 25 percent of the electorate shares that religion, and in 1994, for the first time in history, Republicans captured a majority of the bloc.
None of these governors, however, is likely to help Dole much in the currency of charisma. "If its Dole-Engler," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California, "Jay Leno will call it Dole and Dull. He's a fine man, but not Mr. Excitement."
There are other names on the veep list, such as Jack Kemp, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, and Gov. Pete Wilson of California. But all have points against them.
Mr. Kemp could shore up Dole's support with the supply-side wing of the party. But Kemp hurt his chances with his 11th-hour backing of Steve Forbes.
Governor Whitman might help Dole carve into Clinton's support among women, but she supports both gay and abortion rights - an anathema to the party's social conservatives.
Governor Wilson makes sense in terms of helping win California, but has fallen out of favor at home because of his failed bid for the nomination. He may not be of much help.