Leading Article: Mr Clinton's choice

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'TH' PRISIDINCY is th' highest office in th' gift iv th' people. Th' vice-prisidincy is th' next highest an' the lowest. It isn't a crime exactly. Ye can't be sint to jail f'r it, but it's a kind iv disgrace.' Thus spake the fictional American Mr Dooley in his eponymous 1906 dissertations; his homespun views would probably be echoed at many American hearths today. Most people, indeed, would prefer jail to the ferocious mockery that Dan Quayle has endured during his four years in that unenviable post.

Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who will next week be confirmed by the Democratic convention as the party's nominee for this year's presidential election, yesterday named Senator Al Gore of Tennessee as his running mate. The conventional wisdom is that the choice makes little difference to a presidential candidate's electoral fortunes. Only once can anyone remember the nominal vice-president improving a campaign's chances: Lyndon Johnson probably won Texas for John Kennedy in 1960, but Kennedy would have won without the Lone Star vote. More often, the problem is to avoid running alongside someone who suddenly metamorphoses into a large banana skin. The most dramatic example was in 1972: Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern's first choice, was hastily dumped when his psychiatric record became embarrassing public property. Walter Mondale presumably selected Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 because he had no hope of beating Ronald Reagan, and wanted to go down as the first to choose a female co-candidate; her husband's doubtful financial dealings merely served to spice a boring campaign.

Mr Gore is hardly a thrilling addition to the dramatis personae of this year's campaign - which is probably why he has been chosen. Like Mr Clinton, he is a white, middle-class, male Southerner. Though tinged with liberalism on issues such as the environment, he will be regarded as a safe option by those many white Southern voters who regard the 'rainbow coalition' and New England Democrats as being only a shade this side of subversion. Mr Gore backed the Gulf war. No one can recall hearing skeletons rattling in his cupboard. His wife, Tipper, appears unimpeachable: she runs a group - with Susan Baker, wife of James Baker, the Secretary of State - that campaigns against obscenity in pop lyrics. Mr Gore will have no trouble appearing intelligent and sensible in contrast to Mr Quayle.

Of course, it would have been livelier if Mr Clinton had chosen a new, out-of-Washington face; one of the black state governors, perhaps, or a woman. But Mr Clinton is being politically shrewd in rejecting that other conventional wisdom, the balanced ticket. By selecting Al Gore, he has purchased a ticket weighted all one-way: southwards. In a three- horse race, with the President feeling embattled, Ross Perot is likely to split the vote unpredictably. George Bush is, at the moment, the target of an imprecise national disenchantment, so the middle ground is theoretically more winnable for the Democrats; Mr Clinton and Mr Gore straddle it happily. The Democrats therefore stand a better than even chance of winning back some of the southern states that have eluded them since Jimmy Carter's victory in 1976. Al Gore is not the most exciting choice, but he may help Mr Clinton run a closer race.