With his campaign floundering, the pressure is on for Bob Dole to turn things around with his choice of running mate. That decision always tells the voters something important about a candidate. Sometimes something good, sometimes something bad.
The first candidate to handpick his running mate was Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. FDR threatened to not run for a third term if the Democratic convention didn't accept his choice _ Henry Wallace. The showdown with his own party made Roosevelt look strong and tough.
In 1956, Adlai Stevenson left the choice up to the convention. Bad idea. It made Stevenson look indecisive.
In 1960, John Kennedy kept his own counsel. He stood up to big labor and chose his rival for the nomination _ Lyndon Johnson, a man with his own power base in the Senate and in the South. The choice of LBJ made Kennedy look secure. He wasn't worried about being dominated by his running mate.
The Democratic nominee sent the opposite message in 1972. The process by which George McGovern chose his running mate was open, participatory _ and chaotic. McGovern let others dominate the decision, and the last-minute, haphazard choice of Tom Eagleton turned out to be a disaster.
No one thought to ask Eagleton about his medical history until it was too late. When the facts came out, McGovern stood "1,000 percent" behind his choice. Then he dumped him. The message? McGovern was weak and vacillating.
When Ronald Reagan got the GOP nomination in 1980, he publicly considered putting former President Ford on the ticket. It looked like the "dream team." Reagan wanted to avoid the mistake Barry Goldwater made in 1964. Goldwater had narrowed the party's appeal with his choice of Rep. William Miller. Reagan broadened the ticket with his eventual choice of George Bush. The message? One of reassurance: Reagan was in the mainstream.
Walter Mondale engaged in a painfully public search process in 1984. The various contenders _ three women, two African-Americans, one Hispanic and a white male _ all made the pilgrimage to be interviewed by the nominee. Critics called it pandering. Mondale's eventual choice of the first woman nominee was marred by the fact that women's rights groups were pressuring him to do it. The message? Mondale could be pushed around.
George Bush wanted to generate suspense and excitement with his choice of a running mate in 1988. He got it _ a lot more than he bargained for. Dan Quayle's qualifications and stature became instant campaign issues. And raised questions about Bush's judgment.
In 1992, Bill Clinton's choice of Al Gore was an un-balancing act. By choosing someone his own age, from his own region and with the same philosophy, Clinton sent a message. He meant it when he called himself a New Democrat. This was for real.
This year, Bob Dole has to convey several messages in his choice of a running mate. He has to choose someone whose qualifications are unquestionable. Bush got away with choosing Quayle. A 73-year old candidate can't do that.
Dole can't let it look like he's being pushed around. He has already said he will not rule out a running mate who favors abortion rights. The message? Conservatives will have input, but not veto power.
Dole doesn't need balance. He needs excitement _ someone who sharpens his message.
There's only one candidate who can do all those things for Dole. Colin Powell. And he has taken himself out of contention. Anyone else? Only two candidates offer both stature and excitement. One is former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, a man with energy and ideas. He is the only leading Republican who is acceptable to conservatives and appeals to Democrats and Independents.
But Kemp has one big disadvantage: Dole can't stand him. Kemp's a big agenda guy, and vice presidents are not supposed to have their own agendas.
Anyone else? Sen. John McCain of Arizona. McCain has stature as a spokesman on foreign policy. He's acceptable to conservatives, though not a favorite of the religious right. And he spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. McCain heightens Dole's message on character, as in the newly adopted Dole campaign theme, "A better man. For a better America."
McCain's disadvantages? Another senator. From a small state _ Arizona, the most reliably Republican state in the union. One of the Keating Five, though never found to have done anything illegal or unethical (just "exercised poor judgment," according to the Senate Ethics Committee).
But remember, Bill Clinton's biggest weaknesses are character and military credibility. Those would be the strengths of a Dole-McCain ticket. Two generations, two wars, two war heroes. That's the only message Dole has even an outside chance of winning on.