When Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton phoned Al Gore one night in the summer of 1992, the Tennessee senator is said to have taken the call with his mouth full of barbecued meat. Mr Clinton, the Democratic nominee for the White House, cut to the chase. Would Mr Gore agree to be his vice-presidential running mate? Mr Gore had barely emptied his mouth of food before he replied with an emphatic 'yes', at which point Mr Clinton turned to his wife Hillary and gave her an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Mr Gore had been his first choice as running mate, and the first person to whom he had posed the big question. If only things were quite as simple for Republican Bob Dole. So many names have already been thrown into the ring on his behalf that his campaign aides would need a couple of filing cabinets to store them. And sadly, the number one choice on his list - retired general Colin Powell - not only took himself out of consideration last autumn, but recently rebuffed Mr Dole's quiet advances for him to reconsider. When a 'politician' as wildly popular as Mr Powell has flirted with running for the White House and then so abruptly withdrawn, it becomes impossible for Mr Dole to find an alternative who will not forever be seen as a second choice. But try he must; the choice of running mate is always seen as a crucial move by presidential candidates, and with the Dole campaign currently digging itself into a hole full of strategic errors and lapses in judgment, his decision on the issue could be a make-or-break one. Vice-presidential candidates serve a number of uses to their boss, most importantly the ability to deliver key votes from their state or region. Mr Gore, for example, helped bring in some extra southern voters despite the general drift in the south towards the Republican party. Similarly, Mr Dole has the option of choosing a Californian or Mid-western running mate in order to deliver votes in those two areas, which could tip the balance in the November election. Running mates also offset the characteristics of the main man, perhaps adding some qualities he doesn't have while possessing the necessary gravitas to look credible as the chief executive should the incumbent die (or be impeached) in office. George Bush, for example, ran against Ronald Reagan in the 1980 primaries but looked a good choice for No 2 when Mr Reagan won. The last thing running mates should do is be a handicap on the ticket. Mr Dole knows this well, since he partly blames his own lacklustre performance as Gerald Ford's running mate in 1976 on the subsequent defeat by the previously unknown Jimmy Carter. (Coming as it did in the shadow of the Watergate scandal, the Dole effect is impossible to calculate). No one has ever been able to solve the puzzle of quite why George Bush should have applied these criteria to select Indiana Senator Dan Quayle in 1988. Even reporters went scurrying to their Capitol Hill crib sheets to remind themselves who the young unknown was, but despite Mr Quayle's later image as an accident-prone liability, he performed adequately enough when it mattered - during the election campaign. The number of names currently on Mr Dole's top-secret list of running mates varies, but probably runs to around 15. Aware that his poll ratings are in a slump, and that the party convention next month risks boring most TV viewers, Mr Dole is hoping to keep his final choice secret and to announce it at the San Diego event. Whether the revelation of his choice will provide much of a publicity boost beyond the following morning's newspapers is hard to gauge, but what is beyond doubt is the fact that the potential for political disaster is enormous. Even though right-wing firebrand Pat Buchanan was soundly roasted in the party primaries, the spectre of he and his conservative, family values wing of the party will hang ominously over the convention's proceedings. Some southern states, notably Texas, are packing their delegations with anti-abortionists, and are threatening to cause havoc in front of the nation's TV cameras if the vice-presidential candidate is not also pro-life. Conservative threats are serious; earlier this week they even protested Mr Dole's choice of a pro-choice congresswoman, Susan Molinari, to make a keynote speech at the convention. If reports are correct that Mr Dole has ordered his aides not to come up with any names that would anger the right wing, that would seem to narrow his options somewhat. New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman is widely considered an excellent candidate to become the nation's first woman vice-president, but she is unashamedly pro-choice. So who is a front-runner for the campaign's passenger seat? Possibly John Engler, George Voinovich and Tommy Thompson. Never heard of them? Neither have the 90 per cent of Americans who live outside the mid-western states where these Republican governors govern. But they are at the forefront of some popular conservative state policies, such as welfare reform, that the federal government has been unable to crack. California Attorney-General Dan Lundgren, another unknown, is also pencilled in as an asset from the vote-rich state. And look out for a dark horse in John Kasich, a young congressman who came into his own as a budget battler when Newt Gingrich's conservative army rode into town. Most bizarre suggestion so far? Sam Nunn, a respected senator and perfect running mate were it not for the fact that he is a Democrat. Despite the oddity of the idea, Mr Dole has not ruled it out - although, as often happens, it is impossible to work out who dreamed it up in the first place.