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Condi Crazy

Bush-Rice 2004 is the latest fad among political junkies. But a lot of questions have to be answered first.

8:30 AM, Mar 28, 2002 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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SPECULATION about Condoleezza Rice as a possible vice presidential choice for the GOP ticket in 2004 has reached the proverbial tipping point. Everyone's talking about it, from Eleanor Clift on the left, to the good folks at National Review Online on the right, to Andrew Sullivan on the . . . well, wherever he is (the gay-Tory-Catholic center-right?). The Weekly Standard's own William Kristol has mentioned Bush-Rice 2004 as a serious possibility in several recent TV appearances, and lately the blogger realm has analyzed it in its own endlessly self-referential fashion.

It's easy to see why the idea is so appealing. A Bush-Rice ticket in 2004 is the Democrats' worst nightmare. And what Republican isn't tantalized by the possibility of being the first party to elect a woman and a minority vice president (and possibly president)?

Before we get too worked up about this, though, a little perspective is in order. First, it's astonishing that the Rice scenario is being discussed so openly now, given Dick Cheney's unquestioned stature in the Bush White House. This is not 1992, when Dan Quayle was seen as a real political liability for Bush 41 and a none-too-promising contender for 1996. By contrast, there's no evidence that Cheney's presence harms Bush 43's popularity at all. And if by 2004 the war has gone well (no new terrorist attacks, perhaps an America-friendly regime in Baghdad) and the economy is OK, Bush won't even need whatever electoral boost Rice might bring to the ticket.

The main reason for all the speculation, is, of course, Cheney's health. But by all accounts he's doing quite well, thank you. There have been no cardiac scares in over a year; in fact, Cheney has dropped quite a bit of weight recently (20 pounds, his aides say) by exercising regularly and eating smart. He doesn't appear to be worse for wear after his whirlwind tour of the Middle East, and his staff has planned a heavy schedule of fund-raising and campaigning for him in this election year. Most importantly, Cheney hasn't even so much as hinted that he'll quit in 2004. Reports of his demise, it seems, have been greatly exaggerated.

Whatever the Rice speculation says about people's view of Cheney, more instructive is what it signals about Bush. That serious commentators feel comfortable entertaining a bold choice like Rice suggests how much W.'s stature has increased since September 11. A year ago, when many Americans still weren't sure if Bush was ready for prime time, Cheney's reassuring presence seemed essential for the administration's success. But the past six months have convinced a vast majority of Americans that Bush is up to the job. You no longer hear talk in D.C. of Cheney as "prime minister," or as Chief Operating Officer to Bush's CEO.

If Cheney does bow out in 2004 (which I believe is more unlikely than most people seem to think), a Vice President Rice would make a lot of sense for Bush. As with Cheney, Bush trusts and respects her tremendously and gets along well with her personally. What's more, as a potential GOP standard-bearer in 2008, she's much more impressive and substantial than some of the other prospects being touted (such as the increasingly hapless Tom Ridge, for example). But before we carry the Condi craze too far, a lot of other questions need to be answered. Among them:

What is Rice's position on abortion? And does it even matter?

Much of the current debate about Rice's VP chances in 2004 revolves around her position on abortion and whether it will be palatable to conservatives. Rice has been pretty coy on the subject. And who can blame her? She's not a politician (yet)--she's a foreign policy wonk, for heaven's sake. In 1999, after stepping down as provost at Stanford to work for Bush's campaign, she told the San Francisco Chronicle that despite her devout Presbyterian background, she is a "pro-choice evangelical," and that "there's a lot of room in the middle [on abortion]. . . . I don't think Americans think abortion is something you do lightly." Later that year, she told National Review's Jay Nordlinger that she is "mildly pro-choice," and more generally, an "all-over-the-map Republican" whose views are "hard to typecast."

These vague statements have a few conservatives muttering nervously. Which, in turn, already has some socially libertarian bloggers screaming that conservatives are intolerant troglodytes who will let the abortion issue disqualify even someone as appealing as Rice from the national ticket.