The clock is winding down in Political America's great quadrennial parlor game: Who gets to run for vice president?
Less than two weeks before the Republicans convene in Philadelphia, the GOP's expected nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, appears to have a stronger bench than Democratic candidate Al Gore.
Governor Bush has already heard a flat "no" from former Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, and a near-absolute "no" from Sen. John McCain, his top rival in the primaries.
Either of those two would have been home-run selections who would have boosted the GOP ticket from coast to coast, Republican analysts say. But beyond them sit an array of possibilities, many of whom could enhance Bush's candidacy and even hand him a key swing state.
If focus groups are any guide, GOP pollster Frank Luntz may have found a winner for Bush: Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. Mr. Luntz recently tested 20 vice-presidential possibles from both major parties before a group of independent voters, and found that Governor Keating got the most positive reaction, based on visual impression and his biography.
"The Democrats liked the fact that Keating demonstrated compassion in the handling of the Oklahoma bombing, and the Republicans liked the fact that he was unyielding in terms of the death penalty," Luntz told a recent Monitor breakfast.
Other Republicans confirm that Keating's star seems to be on the rise, as another star seems to be waning - Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.
Governor Ridge could have been the It man. He's personable, a Vietnam veteran, and has a good rapport with Bush. Plus, polls show he could hand Bush a victory in Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state. But Ridge supports abortion rights, and if Bush's behavior to date shows anything, it's that he's not a risk-taker.
The Texas governor wants a controversy-free convention. And even though some top religious-right leaders - such as the Rev. Pat Robertson - have indicated they could tolerate a less-than-ideal running mate, in the name of winning back the White House, Bush would certainly be inviting a news-filled convention if he put a pro-choicer on the ticket.
Religious conservatives have lost some of their clout in recent years, but they remain among the most motivated activists in the Republican Party. Bush doesn't want to alienate his base.
Vice President Gore, on the other hand, is showing weakness with his core voters - thus the speculation around House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, who would bring a more liberal slant to the ticket.
That swirl has died down, as Representative Gephardt has issued signals that he really and truly doesn't want to be Gore's running mate - instead pushing to help the Democrats retake control of the House, and win for himself the Speaker's gavel.
It's possible, analysts say, that the attention Gephardt got was mainly an attempt to show the liberal wing of the party that Gore still loves them - especially as Green Party nominee Ralph Nader threatens to siphon votes away from the vice president.
If Gore is hoping to swing a state his way with his veep selection, he may go for Florida Sen. Bob Graham or North Carolina Gov. James Hunt.
"Graham could make Florida more competitive," says Hastings Wyman, editor of the Southern Political Report. "Same with Hunt in North Carolina. But I don't think either man would guarantee his state would go for Gore, which is a weakness."
Particularly in Florida, where the governor is another Bush - brother Jeb - Mr. Wyman has a hard time seeing Gore pluck that state away from the Bush family.
If Gore wants to try someone a little different, Luntz's focus group came up with some other possibilities: Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a conservative Democrat from Connecticut, and Robert Rubin, President Clinton's former Treasury secretary.
"Joe Lieberman did quite well in his moral message, and in fact, Republicans and independents responded more favorably to Lieberman's comments than did Democrats," says Luntz.
Mr. Rubin came in last among the people tested, because he has never held elective office. Still, says Luntz, the way he explained his economic policy "knocked people's socks off."
Gore does have one advantage in the veep game: Bush has to go first, and if he makes a safe selection (read: white male), Gore can do the same. If Bush does something more risky, Gore might feel compelled to go down that path, too.
What is certain is that each man's selection will be closely scrutinized, especially in a campaign season bereft of burning issues. The selections will provide the first important sign of how each man makes decisions.
"The choice is more important than ever," says GOP analyst Jay Severin. "The job will still be a pitcher of warm spit, and I'm not sure anyone will win or lose based on who they choose. But the absence of other news and intrigue ... has created a vacuum. The smaller things have become more important."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society