N A S H V I L L E, Aug. 9, 2000 -- In the days before George W. Bush announced his selection of Dick Cheney as his running mate, Vice President Al Gore and his advisers sensed an unexpected opportunity. Aboard Air Force II and in Mr. Gore’s campaign headquarters here, there was a consensus that Mr. Bush and his aides had bungled their selection process, that the Republicans had come across as leak-prone, rushed and uncharacteristically amateurish.
The Gore campaign swiftly set out to exploit this perceived weakness by trying to turn the running mate selection process itself into a political weapon. With lock-step discipline, Mr. Gore’s spokesmen derided Mr. Bush for conducting his search “like a fraternity rush.” They presented Mr. Gore’s method as dignified, orderly, pander-free and, above all else, private.
But the strict secrecy imposed by the Gore campaign shielded from public view an intensely political, highly competitive and sometimes frenetic selection process.
Again and again, Mr. Gore’s search was shaped by gritty political concerns that had little bearing on what he had repeatedly described as his single most important criterion for a running mate—someone possessed of the experience and ability to assume the presidency if necessary.
George J. Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader, for example, never made it to the short list, at least in part because of his work as a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, people involved in the search said. Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana faced opposition from pro-choice groups and gave his assent to a campaign aimed at countering criticism over his voting record on abortion, but faded nonetheless. Senator Bob Graham of Florida was hurt by his habit of filling diaries with mundane aspects of his day, a practice some in the Gore campaign worried would be viewed as eccentric.
On the other hand, Democratic officials said, Mr. Bush’s repeated efforts to tarnish Mr. Gore with resurrected memories of President Clinton’s affair with a White House intern elevated the standing of Mr. Gore’s eventual choice, Joseph I. Lieberman, the first Democrat to condemn Mr. Clinton’s affair from the Senate floor.
The enforced secrecy—potential running mates were warned not to divulge details about their contacts with the Gore vetting teams—also served to obscure lobbying efforts by a select group of well-connected political professionals. Several of Mr. Gore’s campaign consultants had also worked for those on his list of potential vice presidents, and these men and women fought hard for their favored picks. One adviser, Bob Shrum, has worked with several of the potential candidates but argued for one of them, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. Another adviser, Michael Whouley, argued for his former boss, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Only last week, Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council and an influential voice among moderate Democrats, lobbied both Mr. Gore and his campaign chairman, William M. Daley, on behalf of Mr. Lieberman, who is the chairman of the council.
The Message in the Method
As with any presidential candidate, the choice of running mate is an important and telling decision. Mr. Gore’s aides argued that the way he went about picking Mr. Lieberman illustrated several of his strengths, notably his meticulous preparation before arriving at major decisions. Mr. Gore, they said, has raised vetting to new levels of thoroughness and inclusiveness.
Although Mr. Gore announced in April that former Secretary of State Warren Christopher would lead his selection team, Mr. Gore actually began to organize his process months before. His vetting teams were led by such veteran lawyers as Charles F.C. Ruff, the former White House counsel who defended Mr. Clinton during his impeachment trial. The team that vetted Mr. Lieberman, led by Jamie S. Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general, went so far as to review the more than 800 legal opinions that Mr. Lieberman rendered when he was attorney general of Connecticut from 1983 to 1989.
Sheldon Cohen, a former commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, was drafted to review tax returns. Mr. Gore also instructed Mr. Christopher to consult freely and frequently with an informal group that consisted of Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman and former Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, both of whom have faced ethics inquiries, and Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“I gained added respect for his values and judgment,” Mr. Christopher said when asked in an interview what he had learned about Mr. Gore during the search process. “I found he went about the process seriously and conscientiously.”
Republicans drew different lessons from Mr. Gore’s method of picking a running mate. While praising Mr. Lieberman as a man of integrity, they said that Mr. Gore’s selection process underscored what they described as his penchant for tactical ruthlessness and a tendency to shade the truth for political gain.
Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for Mr. Bush, dismissed the notion that the Gore decision-making process was more orderly and dignified than Mr. Bush’s process. He said that much of what Mr. Gore did, including his mention that in addition to the six finalists there was a “wild card” candidate, was theater designed for public consumption. He said that the important difference was that the Bush campaign had greeted the choice of Mr. Lieberman graciously, while the Gore campaign had attacked Mr. Cheney.
“They’re missing the whole big picture on where the public is about attacking everything,” Mr. Fleischer said.
One Democratic lawyer who has guided potential running mates through both Mr. Gore’s vetting routine and Mr. Clinton’s 1992 vetting complained that this year’s process was at times “delayed and disorganized.” Indeed, just five days before his self-imposed deadline, Mr. Gore said that he had narrowed his list to six. Yet one finalist, Representative Richard A. Gephardt, the minority leader, had not been vetted—a task that had taken lawyers weeks of painstaking work for other finalists.
Such was the sophistication of Mr. Gore’s selection stagecraft that even leaks were orchestrated for maximum effect. Eager to win over women, Mr. Gore has emphasized that several women were under strong consideration. Last week, as interest was peaking over Mr. Gore’s progress, his campaign let it be known that one of his finalists was a woman, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, even though she had already said she would turn down the job, and even though one person involved in Mr. Gore’s screening process said that she had not been under serious consideration for some time.
A Long Search, a Long List
Last fall, before a single primary or caucus had been contested, Mr. Gore had already started to think about running mates. By October his campaign chairman at the time, Tony Coelho, had contacted Mr. Christopher and asked him to start thinking about how to organize a search.
Mr. Christopher, 74, was a logical choice. A man who exudes tact and discretion, Mr. Christopher had led Mr. Clinton’s search in 1992, and the subsequent selection of Al Gore was widely regarded as a turning point in Mr. Clinton’s campaign. But Mr. Christopher was well aware of the perils of the selection process. A hasty vetting job in 1984 left Walter F. Mondale’s campaign bogged down in weeks of questions about the finances of his running mate, Geraldine A. Ferraro.
“Anybody who tries to do this has to read the history and see the mistakes that were made and try to avoid them,” Mr. Christopher said. Those lessons, aides said, were central to one of Mr. Gore’s primary search objectives—finding a running mate who could get off to a fast, clean start, unlike Mr. Cheney, for example, who spent his first week defending his votes in Congress.
Starting in February, Mr. Christopher and Mr. Gore began to construct what Mr. Christopher came to call his “People to Consult List,” a roster of senior Democrats that would grow to 70 names. The list included nearly a dozen women, 18 members of minority groups and representatives of several special interest groups. Most were on the list simply because Mr. Gore wanted their advice. But 25 of the names, including Mr. Lieberman’s, were considered as potential running mates.
According to Mr. Coelho, the Gore campaign made an overture to Colin L. Powell, just as the Clinton campaign had done in 1992. “He was indirectly approached to see if he would ever consider a vice-presidential spot on any ticket,” he said. But General Powell rebuffed the overture and the matter was dropped.
Even as Mr. Gore’s spokesmen insisted that there was no long list, no short list, no list at all, Mr. Christopher began interviews to help Mr. Gore pare the list. As a first step, a team of young Washington lawyers prepared memorandums on the public careers of the 25 possible candidates.
Mr. Christopher visited Mr. Lieberman in his Senate office on May 1. In an interview the next month, Mr. Lieberman described his session as “an out-of-body experience” for a politician who had once been too embarrassed to openly admit his ambition to be a senator. That day, as he faced his old friend—he calls him Chris—Mr. Lieberman found himself suddenly confronting the dizzying possibility of occupying the nation’s second highest office.
“When Chris came here it was the first moment it had any reality to it,” he said. “Somebody said to me: ‘This is like the ministry. You’re called to the ministry, you don’t seek it.“‘
By early June, as word of Christopher sightings spread across Capitol Hill, and as one politician after another coyly confirmed that yes, they had in fact spoken with him, the speculation was such that some 30 Democrats had been named in news media reports as under active consideration.
But by that point, Mr. Gore had already settled on about a half-dozen names. He told Mr. Christopher to go ahead with full vetting on this group, which included Senator Lieberman, Governor Shaheen, Senator Edwards, Representative Gephardt, Senator Bayh and Senator Kerry, Democratic officials said. But even before the vetting was in full swing, there were indications that Mr. Lieberman was the front-runner.
On June 15, the day Mr. Daley replaced Mr. Coelho as campaign chairman, his first substantial conversation with Mr. Gore quickly turned to the question of running mates. “He said, ‘Joe is really close, he’s really great, what do you think?“‘ Mr. Daley recalled. “Then he went into the other candidates, but he was the first one he named.”
The Gore campaign set about assembling five to seven vetting teams, all reporting to James Hamilton, a lawyer with long experience examining the lives of troubled Washington figures.
Mr. Hamilton has represented Vince W. Foster Jr., the deputy White House counsel who later committed suicide; Dennis DiConcini, the former senator from Arizona implicated in the Keating Five scandal; and David Durenberger, the former Minnesota senator who also faced an ethics inquiry.
Mr. Christopher gives him perhaps his highest form of praise: “He is very discreet.”
The vetters, who, like Mr. Christopher, worked as unpaid volunteers, gathered boxes of records from each of the finalists: every vote ever cast, every press release ever issued, transcripts of speeches, videotapes of political debates, books they have written, school transcripts, a lifetime of financial and medical records.
None of the five who made it to the vetting round were eliminated on the basis of some shocking revelation contained in these records. “The vetting process produces pluses and minuses, but there was no show stopper,” Mr. Christopher said.
Still, the pluses and minuses mattered greatly, and the vetting process itself, along with the speculation surrounding it, produced some ugly moments of competition and rivalry and sheer political spectacle.
Flaws and Rumors of Flaws
One such instance came in recent weeks. Mr. Kerry, a popular and seasoned politician, was attractive to Mr. Gore for many reasons, not the least of which was that he is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. But in recent weeks rumors raced through political circles in Washington and beyond about Mr. Kerry’s dating habits from years ago when he was divorced. It was a troubling development that took on added significance given the emphasis at the Republican National Convention on restoring “honor and decency” to the White House.
Gore campaign aides said the rumors had no bearing on the selection, but on Monday Mr. Kerry told The Boston Globe that Mr. Gore’s vetters had inquired about that time of his life. “They asked a couple of questions from the period when I was single, and I gave them an explanation,” he said. “Three-quarters of the stories that were written when I was single were not accurate.”
Mr. Christopher’s queries to special interest groups turned up a problem for Mr. Bayh on one of the touchstone issues of the Democratic Party: abortion rights. In early May, Mr. Christopher left a message for Alice Germond, the acting president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, a group that monitors voting records on abortion issues. When Ms. Germond saw the message, she immediately recognized the purpose of his call and assembled the abortion voting records of potential running mates.
When she came to Mr. Bayh, she expressed concern about his vote to ban a late-term procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion. Worse yet for Mr. Bayh, Ms. Germond and an official from the National Organization for Women were quoted in a Baltimore Sun article that suggested that Mr. Bayh’s “problematic” stance on abortion might make it difficult to mobilize votes from pro-choice women.
In an interview, Ms. Germond said that her only intent was to provide unbiased information about the abortion records of every potential running mate. Even so, Mr. Bayh’s supporters were furious at the abortion league and NOW.
“I assumed they were trying to push Feinstein,” said Ann DeLaney, Mr. Bayh’s former campaign manager, referring to Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, one of the women who was mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate. “I was outraged.”
Shortly after the story appeared, Ms. DeLaney expressed her anger to Mr. Bayh as they went jogging one evening. She said she discussed her desire to write a letter accusing the abortion league and NOW of distorting what she described as his firm pro-choice record. He did not discourage her, she said. Sure enough, her letter soon appeared in news articles that described how Indiana women were rallying in defense of Mr. Bayh’s record on abortion.
Nevertheless, Mr. Bayh soon found his chances being downgraded in articles quoting Democratic officials.
Meanwhile, Mr. Edwards’s background as a trial lawyer who had won millions for consumers injured by corporate negligence made him an easy fit for Mr. Gore’s populist message about taking on major oil and drug companies. And every time Mr. Gore and his spokesmen described Mr. Cheney as part of the Republican “old guard,” Mr. Edwards’s stock appeared, at least in the eyes of the senator’s supporters, to inch higher.
But again, Mr. Gore’s screening machinery turned up a steady drumbeat of concern about his relative lack of political experience as a first-term senator.
“Those were questions that were asked during the process,” Mr. Edwards readily acknowledged on Monday. “They’re perfectly reasonable questions.” The questions only grew louder with the selection of Mr. Cheney, a man with decades of experience at the highest levels of national government.
On Air Force II on July 24, the day before Mr. Bush announced his selection of Mr. Cheney, Mr. Gore told reporters that Mr. Bush’s pick probably would not have an effect on his selection. But behind the scenes, advisers believed that Mr. Cheney’s experience had to be accounted for, and that dynamic favored Mr. Lieberman, 58.
“On the gravitas level, he matches up,” Mr. Christopher said.
But for all the thoroughness of the Gore screening process, his vetters never fully explored the possible effect of the largest question mark over Mr. Lieberman: how voters would react to an Orthodox Jew on a national ticket. A number of people on Mr. Christopher’s consultation list had repeatedly raised Mr. Lieberman’s religion as a possible problem. But Mr. Gore, who has been criticized by Republicans for being excessively guided by polling data, issued orders that no steps were to be taken to gauge public reaction to Mr. Lieberman’s religion.
“Gore said: ‘That’s not part of me. That’s not part of my thinking. I exclude that,“‘ Mr. Christopher recalled.
What the vetters did do, though, was explore dozens of hypothetical situations to test how he would respond to potential conflicts between his observance of the Sabbath and the duties of a vice president, Ms. Gorelick said in an interview today.
“He had definitely thought through them in the context of the public life he has led to date,” she said.
By late July, Mr. Gore had conducted one-on-one interviews with all of his finalists except Mr. Gephardt. There were no moments akin to 1992, when Mr. Clinton interviewed Mr. Gore well into the early morning. Mr. Lieberman’s interview, conducted at Mr. Gore’s residence at the Naval Observatory, lasted about an hour, the same amount of time Mr. Gore spent with the others.
But it clearly went well.
Ms. Herman, the labor secretary, spoke with Mr. Gore after the interview with Mr. Lieberman. She described Mr. Gore’s response to the interview more as one of affirmation than revelation. “You had this sense of, ‘Boy, was I right about this guy,“‘ she said.
Going into Sunday’s decisive meetings in the vice president’s 10th floor suite at the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel here, aides got a definite sense that Mr. Gore had just about settled on Mr. Lieberman but wanted one more “gut check” before making the final decision.
Not long before Mr. Gore told aides of his decision, he called his oldest daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, who was in her apartment in New York.
“He goes on a personal instinct for this sort of thing,” she said. “And I always knew he would.”