Gore Choice Balances Ticket in Unusual Ways Not a Geographical Balance, but on Issue of Defense, Gore Provides Moderating Factor

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TONIGHT, Democrats nominate Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. as Bill Clinton's running mate, an effort to reinforce a new moderate look for the party.

Traditionally, running mates matter little to the outcome of elections.

But 1992 is not a traditional election year. With three major candidates in the race, small margins become more critical and Mr. Gore may be somewhat more significant in the campaign than vice presidential candidates usually are.

One reason is the high profile of Vice President Dan Quayle. Unusually controversial, Mr. Quayle has become the White House's aggressive campaigner, notes former Democratic national chairman John White. "So it's very important that you have somebody who can go belt-buckle to belt-buckle with the vice president," he said at a Monitor luncheon here.

Gore and Quayle also make a classic left-right matchup on the environment. Gore has impeccable credentials as an environmentalist. He wrote a well-reviewed book on the subject and led the Senate delegation to the United Nation's environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro last month.

Quayle has made a crusade of defending the economy against environmental regulation. He has used a White House council he chairs to sharply prune the sweep of rules and regulations, much to the consternation of environmentalists in Congress and some federal agencies.

The debate they will inevitably hold this fall may generate strong public interest. Yet the potential political impact is more risk than opportunity.

"Generally speaking," says Paul Light, a University of Minnesota political scientist who has studied the vice presidency, "vice presidential candidates can hurt more than they can help."

Polls over the decades show that vice-presidential candidates can deliver potentially 1 to 3 percentage points to the national vote total, says Dr. Light.

More likely, a vice presidential candidate who is an asset to his running mate adds a percentage point "here and there" to his ticket's margin.

But in a three-way race, adds Light, "the margins can be very, very tight" and the difference could be critical.

Four years ago, Quayle was clearly a drag on the Republican ticket after his scathing introduction to the public through charges of Vietnam avoidance, never substantiated, and pampered inexperience. His public image was dismal. A Gallup post-election study concluded that he probably cost the Bush ticket 2 percentage points from its winning margin.

And the contrast between Quayle's image of callow youth and that of his opposite, the suave veteran Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, could hardly have been sharper, notes Bill McInturff, a Republican strategist.

The vice-presidential contenders could also leap to an unusual prominence if it appears that Ross Perot, Mr. …