The Republican presidential contest has been all but settled, so Washington's pundits and politicians are turning to much more weighty stuff _ offering their opinions about whom Bob Dole will pick as his running mate.
It's basically a harmless game, but one taken seriously in a city where even a mention in a newspaper column can send an ambitious politician's heart rate up a bit.
Just last week, Ohio Rep. John Kasich knocked over his coffee cup when the question came up about his chances for the vice presidential slot.
"I will know I'm on the short list when Broder writes it," a flustered Kasich told a group of reporters, including Washington Post political writer David S. Broder.
If Kasich, 43, is the longest of long shots, the notion behind choosing a youngish go-getter like him is not. It's all about balancing the ticket to help the presidential candidate where he is weak _ and Dole has too much age, and not enough exuberance in the eyes of many voters.
To play the game of vice presidential speculation, first consider the known factors:
Dole would be 73 when he takes the oath of office. He's a Washington insider, having served in Congress for 35 years. He's an establishment Republican, viewed with skepticism by supply-side economic devotees and by anti-abortion advocates in the GOP. He campaigns on the idea that Washington should return power to the states, and carries around a copy of the 10th Amendment to make his point. He comes from a Midwestern state that brings just six Electoral College votes, so he could use someone who can lock up a state or two in getting the 270 necessary to win.
With those characteristics in mind, a perfect partner for Dole would be an energetic soul, with the ability to take over the No. 1 job if necessary. He or she might be of the pro-growth economic school who thinks tax cuts stimulate the economy, a la Ronald Reagan. A governor would be a good choice, particularly one from a key electoral state. Or, at least someone who can make the case that a Dole White House would bring new energy and ideas to the poisoned atmosphere in Washington.
Who fits? No one does, exactly. But the consensus candidate is someone who says he doesn't want the job: Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who flirted with a campaign for president last fall and then decided against it.
Other candidates include a round of popular Midwestern governors, who could boost Dole in a region that could very well decide the outcome of this fall's election.
"Governors are looking good," said Karlyn Bowman, polling expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
Longer odds go to Florida Sen. Connie Mack, Arizona Sen. John McCain, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and former South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell.
For all the newsprint and talk show babble that will be spent on the subject, it's worth noting that political scientists don't put much stock in the ability of a vice presidential selection helping the nominee much on Election Day.
The last time it certainly did, many political scientists say, was when John Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson. In 1992, Al Gore probably reinforced Bill Clinton's image as a energetic, southern yuppie. But the selection can hurt, too: Dan Quayle quickly was caricatured as a lightweight in over his head. He never got over it.
To keep track of the ins and outs, here is a guide to some of the would-be vice presidential candidates:
The 58-year-old Powell is coming off a highly successful book promotion tour that could have served as a launch pad for his own candidacy. A son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell joined the Army in 1958 and rose to the highest military job in the land. Dole repeatedly has hinted that Powell would be his first choice.
PLUSES: Powell is a dynamic speaker, held in high esteem by Americans for his accomplishments. He has experience in diplomacy and politics. He would attract black voters who traditionally vote Democratic. Polls show a Dole-Powell ticket running even with the Democrat's offering of Clinton and Gore.
MINUSES: He's never run for office, so he may have trouble tolerating the thorough going-over he would undergo by rivals and the press. Conservatives find his statements in favor of abortion rights unacceptable. And, from his standpoint, why go through the rigors of a campaign when he would be a likely candidate for Secretary of State or some other high-level job?
The 47-year-old Michigan governor first was elected in 1990, and re-elected in 1994 with 62 percent of the vote. His political career began in the Michigan state house in 1971. He and his wife, Michelle, have triplet girls, born in November 1995.
PLUSES: Engler has built a record of accomplishing policy changes that Washington-based Republicans have tried, but so far failed, to put into law. He has cut taxes 21 times, and put in place a welfare reform package that requires recipients to work 20 hours a week or look for employment. Unemployment was 4.4 percent in October, the lowest point on record in the state. His Roman Catholicism may help woo swing voters in the industrial Midwest.
MINUSES: He's little known by voters outside Michigan.
The 54-year-old governor of Wisconsin has been in the middle of national debates over reforming Medicaid and welfare as chairman of the National Governors' Association. He first was elected governor in 1986.
PLUSES: He is seen by his fellow governors and in Washington as an innovator who was one of the first state leaders to reform welfare. He has nurtured the state's school choice movement. Like Engler, he is Roman Catholic.
MINUSES: Little known by voters outside Wisconsin. Even if he delivers his home state, it means only 11 Electoral College votes.
The 59-year-old Voinovich was elected governor of Ohio in 1990, after having served as mayor of Cleveland, a state legislator and assistant attorney general.
PLUSES: Voinovich enjoys support among Republicans and Democrats alike, and comes from a state that has proved to be a bellwether in presidential elections. The economy in Ohio is strong, and that reflects well on the governor.
MINUSES: He is not a particularly exciting campaigner. Conservatives are upset that he has refused to cut taxes, choosing instead to hold a large reserve in the state budget in case of recession.
Mack, 55, was elected narrowly to the Senate in 1988, then won big over a weak opponent in 1994. Before that, he served in the House for six years and was a banker in southwest Florida.
PLUSES: Mack is a strong advocate of tax cuts to stimulate the economy and could reach out to the supply-side crowd. He has softened criticism of his partisan edge by working on environmental issues, such as stopping offshore oil drilling and getting money for the Everglades. He is telegenic and looks younger than his age.
MINUSES: If Dole needs Mack to win Florida, he's in big trouble in the rest of the country. The state is usually a lock for Republicans, though President Clinton is working it hard after losing it by just two percentage points in 1992's three-way race.