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Clinton holds a court of intrigue

PROMINENT politicians make unscheduled flights across half the country, limousines with darkened windows glide surreptitiously into hotel loading bays, and the press is in a frenzy of speculation. No, it is not a coup in the making, merely a time-honoured ritual of United States presidential election years: a presumptive party nominee is choosing his running-mate.

On Monday, the Democratic convention opens in New York. First though, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas has to pick a vice-presidential candidate. This week he briefly set up court at the Capital Hilton here to pursue his search - only to find himself under a media siege worthy of the White House, where he hopes to take up more permanent residence next January.

One by one, potential candidates arrived for an audience, only disembarking from their cars when the loading bay's iron doors had slid shut behind them, leaving swarms of frustrated reporters on the pavement outside. Was it Cuomo? Was it Gore? In fact, it transpired, two subsequently identified visitors had been less glamorous: Senators Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania and Bob Graham of Florida. But from the individuals in question, not a word.

The Clinton campaign has had its share of criticism, but on this matter at least its performance has been superb. Not a hint of Mr Clinton's inner thoughts has leaked out.

Yesterday the game continued. Mr Clinton pretended it was business-as-usual, as he went to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to promote a state jobs programme. But why had he summoned Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, one of his vanquished primary foes, to a midnight meeting in Little Rock? After their conversation ended at 1.30 am, Mr Kerrey too observed the omerta of a Mafia don.

One thing is certain - Mr Clinton is revelling in his intrigue. For a man at last getting his own back on his media tormentors, these are sweet times indeed. Yesterday brought endorsement from former Senator Paul Tsongas, his most serious adversary in the primary campaign.

So who will get the job which former Vice-President Lyndon Johnson said was not worth 'a bucket of warm spit?' Congressman Lee Hamilton may have diminished his chances by an unseemly readiness to talk about his conversations with Mr Clinton. Senator Kerrey clearly made the cut: so had Messrs Wofford and Graham. Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia could yet be a dark horse; a few still dream of Governor Cuomo of New York. As of yesterday, Senator Al Gore of Tennessee was probably a slight favourite.

For once the gentlemen of the press concur in three untypical words: 'We don't know.'