WASHINGTON - Al Gore's secret search for a running mate has quietly slipped into high gear, with former Secretary of State Warren Christopher arranging get-acquainted interviews with potential candidates.
"Chris is hard at work," Mr. Gore said Sunday night as he flew home from Boston on Air Force Two.
While his aides insist there are no lists, long or short, the vice president chose his words carefully.
"I have not finalized a long list yet," he said. "I have talked with him about the process."
Mr. Christopher is not talking these days. But a Democratic operative familiar with some aspects of the search said that Mr. Christopher, who officially took on his duties April 6, already has begun to arrange visits to "size up" some prospects.
In short, Mr. Gore says, he wants the best man or woman for the job, someone who could instantly become president.
"When you get past that stage," he said, "then you can look at other factors."
In a wide-ranging discussion of his selection process with a few reporters traveling aboard his plane, Mr. Gore said he was casting a wide net that might even snare a Republican.
"I don't want to mislead you," Mr. Gore said. "But I do not completely rule it out."
He also made clear that there was plenty of top talent within the Democratic Party and that he is intent on considering a diverse field of prospects unlike himself.
"It's just common sense," he said, comparing his search to that carried out by a corporate executive or headhunter.
"You have got to realize that some people have a natural tendency rooted in human nature to look at people who are like themselves," he explained. "Pushing to overcome that natural trait results in a beneficial view of tremendously talented people who are in other categories.
"Forcing yourself to do that is very much a smart thing to do, whatever position that you're trying to fill," he added. "And those who do not do that do not get the best people."
Mr. Gore's headhunter is a 74-year-old Los Angeles lawyer with a hefty resume of his own. Mr. Christopher directed the 1992 search that found Mr. Gore for Bill Clinton; he then served as secretary of state until 1997.
"He did a great job last time, don't you think so?" Mr. Gore quipped. "There are a lot of things that need to be done, and he's an expert on how to do it."
Mr. Christopher is not yet asking prospects to provide tax returns or other paperwork, but he will as vetting winnows the field.
''You've got to do that," Mr. Gore said, "for the sake of the people involved as well as for the sake of the ticket."
For the final prospects, the requests will be dizzying: not only tax returns but financial disclosure statements, campaign finance reports, medical records, even FBI files if the prospects volunteer them.
In 1992, Mr. Christopher began with a field of about 40 potential running mates for Mr. Clinton. This time, the initial list is expected to be shorter.
The Democratic National Convention begins Aug. 14, and Mr. Gore said he may announce his running mate before then, perhaps even before the Republicans meet July 31. In any event, he said he would probably settle on a choice in July.
Just whom Mr. Gore might choose is anyone's guess. While he clearly has begun to focus on what may be the most important decision of his campaign, any list of contenders is closely held. Aides familiar with the process say that only Mr. Gore and the most inner circle of advisers, including Mr. Christopher and campaign chairman Tony Coelho, are in the loop.
Nonetheless, the speculation is endless.
In the Senate, Bob Graham of Florida, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Evan Bayh of Indiana, John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Dianne Feinstein of California and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut are mentioned.
Among governors, Gray Davis of California, James Hunt of North Carolina and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire draw attention.
In the Clinton Cabinet, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who is Hispanic, often turned up front and center with Mr. Gore at the early primary night celebrations.
Other prospects bandied about include former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine; former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin; Franklin Raines, who as budget director was among the highest-ranking blacks in the Clinton administration; and Defense Secretary William Cohen, a Republican.
Mr. Gore's vanquished primary opponent, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, would be a remote possibility, say many in the Gore camp.
On the Republican side, Gov. George W. Bush last week tapped former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, now a Dallas business executive, to direct his search for a running mate.
In 1992, Mr. Clinton announced Mr. Gore as his running mate the week before the Democratic convention. In many ways, it was a surprise choice: another young Southern Democrat with moderate "new Democrat" views.
But in a "funny way," Mr. Gore said Sunday, his selection was part of Mr. Clinton's desire to "look outside the traditional boundaries" that have often mandated that a vice presidential nominee come from a different region with views and other assets that would balance the ticket.
"The best politics with every group, with every kind of American" is to select a running mate who could be president, Mr. Gore said. "That just trumps everything else."