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The Case for Gephardt

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In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I have never accurately predicted whom a presidential nominee would pick as his running mate. Then again, I don't know anyone else who has.

I do not know a soul who predicted that Al Gore would pick Joe Lieberman or that George W. Bush would pick Dick Cheney, the guy who was heading up Bush's running-mate search committee. I don't recall anyone saying that Bob Dole would pick Jack Kemp. And I am quite certain that I never heard anyone say that Bill Clinton would choose Gore, a move that was antithetical to almost any notion of balancing a ticket.

No one I know thought that George H.W. Bush would choose Dan Quayle. And I don't know anyone who wasn't very surprised when Michael Dukakis picked Lloyd Bentsen and when Walter Mondale opted for Geraldine Ferraro. Let's face it: Political punditry, both amateur and professional, should have a disclaimer when it comes to running-mate prognostication.

The conventional wisdom today is that John Kerry will pick John Edwards, even though -- as The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt has quipped -- "Kerry Edwards" sounds like the name of a Duke University cheerleader. The rumor is that a certain national newsmagazine came close to running a cover story almost anointing Edwards as Kerry's running mate.

Yet the logic of a Kerry-Edwards ticket escapes me. Edwards would be unlikely to deliver his home state of North Carolina as the Democrats' vice presidential nominee.

It is true that Kerry and Edwards are, in some ways, mirror images of each other. Kerry has long service in the Senate; Edwards is a freshman. While Kerry is certainly not the legislative powerhouse that his Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Edward Kennedy, is, he has cut a considerably wider swath through the Senate than Edwards has. Kerry has the war record and medals; Edwards doesn't. But it is also true that Edwards connects with people in a way that Kerry does only in his dreams. In recent memory, only Bill Clinton has had the charisma and dynamism that Edwards projects on the campaign trail.

Commentator Michael Barone has noted that no presidential nominee in memory has chosen to be overshadowed by a running mate who was more charismatic, attractive, and dynamic than himself. Kerry does not seem like someone who would enjoy being outshone. Although Kerry's choosing Edwards is hardly a nutty idea, why should he do it if there are stronger choices?

In my view, a very convincing argument can be made for picking Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. The first rule of running-mate selection is the same principle undergirding the physicians' pledge: "First, do no harm." Do not pick anyone who has a past that could become a future problem. Gephardt's life is an open book. And although some might say that book is not very exciting, blandness isn't something that would get the Democratic ticket skewered by investigative reporters or that would dissuade any swing voter from supporting it.

Second, while Gephardt is not a statewide figure in his home state, his presence on the ticket would most likely tip its 11 electoral votes into the Democratic column. Missouri is the most evenly divided state in the union. In 2000, the presidential, Senate, and gubernatorial races there were all decided by 3 percentage points or fewer. And Missouri has sided with the winner in every presidential election since 1900, except for in 1956.

Third, Gephardt has a history and credibility on the jobs issue, which will likely be pivotal in this election and would help Kerry enormously in locking down Rust Belt states that are competitive but Democratic-leaning -- Michigan and Pennsylvania, for example. More important, the issue could help the Democrats win Ohio. With its 20 electoral votes, Ohio is arguably the single most important state in this election. No Republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio, and strategists on both sides consider Bush's previous 3.5 point margin of victory to be in grave peril, given voters' concerns about job losses.

If I were Kerry, I'd pick Gephardt and tell him to spend 40 percent of his time in Missouri and 40 percent in Ohio, and to divide the remainder between Michigan and Pennsylvania. That would give Gephardt a real shot at being one of the few vice presidential nominees in history to really boost his party's chances of winning the White House.

 
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