Talk of Spot on Ticket Gets Him Mileage

The Great Mentioner has state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren on a list, even if Sen. Bob Dole probably does not. True, the GM's list is long and Lungren's name is near the bottom. But it's still a coveted position for any ambitious politician.

Being blessed by the Great Mentioner--the media--adds stature and increases one's visibility, which tends to enhance poll ratings and, in turn, generate donations from investors playing political futures.

But it can be tricky. Lungren is warming up to run for governor in 1998. Meanwhile, he occasionally gets "mentioned" in news stories as a potential vice president. Eyes usually roll, sometimes even Lungren's. He isn't taking this very seriously and doesn't want anybody to get the idea that he is.

"Please," he urged in an interview, "make sure to say I'm not running for this thing."

Has Dole talked to him about it? "He's talked to others, but not to me and I'd like to keep it that way. It serves no purpose if it looks like I'm pining for the job. It undercuts my effort for governor if people think I'm using that as a ruse to get on the national ticket."

Actually, it's more the other way around. Lungren advisors and allies are using the veep speculation to advance his gubernatorial bid.

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The enigmatic Great Mentioner got Lungren's name from Dole. That happened last May 31, and it illustrates the power of a few well-placed words.

Dole was campaigning in San Francisco, posing in front of a cable car packed with tourists--the usual SF photo-op. A reporter shouted a question: Was Gov. Pete Wilson on his short list of possible running mates? "What about Dan Lungren?" the senator replied. "He's a good man!"

That was it.

Many pols figured Dole mentioned Lungren's name merely to tweak Wilson, then a rival for the Republican presidential nomination.

But the news media soon picked up on it and one newspaper, the Washington Times, even reported that Lungren was "No. 1" on Dole's VP list. Speculation later cooled but now has reheated since Dole seems to have clinched the nomination.

The hottest name is Colin Powell. But seen as more likely is some conservative governor from a swing Midwest state, such as John Engler of Michigan or Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin. The Dole camp probably will float a dozen names before GOP delegates convene in San Diego.

Lungren got another "mention" last week from Speaker Newt Gingrich, a former House colleague and friend. Answering reporters' questions, Gingrich cited Lungren and Engler as "mainstream conservatives [and] perfect examples of the kind of people who would be terrific."

Gingrich has talked up Lungren before, but also is high on Powell and "is not advocating anybody," according to a spokesman.

The speaker reportedly does advocate, however, an all-out GOP effort to carry California in November. Beyond the 54 electoral votes, Gingrich is concerned about 52 House seats.

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Lungren's only unique asset, obviously, is that he's a Californian and presumably the silver bullet Dole needs for an upset in a state President Clinton must win.

He'd be acceptable to the GOP convention because he's an anti-abortion conservative. Like Dole, he favors--but does not push--a constitutional amendment to ban abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is threatened.

Other factors could appeal to voters outside California: Age 49 (compared to Dole's 72), Catholic (ethnic swing voters) and national experience (10 activist years in Congress).

But the Field Poll last week punctured the basic premise of a Dole-Lungren ticket. It reported that Lungren actually might hurt Dole in California; 8% would be more inclined to vote for him, 18% less inclined.

I talked to a handful of Dole advisors, in California and Washington, and none regarded Lungren as a serious VP contender.

Let's be frank: Nobody ever heard of Lungren outside California and he's only a state attorney general. There's a stature gap.

Even if he's not pining for the job, that kind of talk irritates Lungren.

"California is the dominant state in the union and somebody who has been a statewide official ought to be considered as having the same merit as a governor of some small Southern state," he asserts. "And when you're a member of the House, you have just as much knowledge as a senator. I'd have no problem whatsoever going toe to toe with the current vice president [an ex-senator]."

"If the call came" from Dole, Lungren says, "I'm pretty cheap, but I might even accept it collect." Nobody, however, really expects the phone to ring, including Lungren.

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