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How to Lose - and Still Win

THE breakfast with reporters was marking ``the year after'' Lloyd Bentsen had almost missed the phone call that put him on the Democratic ticket. ``I had turned off the phone the night before,'' he said, ``so I wouldn't have to keep telling reporters why I wouldn't be picked by Dukakis. So when Mike's call came late that night, he couldn't get in. Then, the next morning, I was shaving and almost didn't hear the call.''

The Senator was jovial. He recalled relaying the news to his wife. ``Oh, no!'' she first said - before adjusting to the idea.

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``Would he be interested in running again in 1990, this time at the head of the ticket?'' a reporter asked.

``I'm giving all my attention to my job as chairman of the Finance Committee,'' the Senator said perfunctorily. He obviously wasn't closing the door to a presidential try.

And why should he? No one can forget how Bentsen starred in the '88 campaign. The addition of his name to the ticket pushed Michael Dukakis up to a decided margin over George Bush in the polls. Then, as Mr. Dukakis faltered in the campaign, Bentsen continued to buoy up the ticket. Observers kept saying a Bentsen-Dukakis ticket would win. And just before the election a California poll indicated that such a combination would triumph in that state - but that the Dukakis-Bentsen arrangement would lose.

If the Democrats want a ``winner'' in '90, they need to look no farther than this tall Texan. He has no fear of meeting Mr. Bush. Why should he? He beat Bush in the '72 Senate race. Additionally, while the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket was losing to Bush-Quayle in Texas, Bentsen was being returned to the Senate in Texas by a decidedly wider edge than the Bush-Quayle win in that state.

``You and Bush went through that fiercely waged '72 contest and remained friends, didn't you?'' a reporter asked. ``We are still friends,'' he says.

This tells a lot about Bentsen. He can disagree strongly with an adversary and not make it personal. Bush is the same way. Indeed, they are a lot alike - both ``nice guys.'' What is important to note is that some experts think Bentsen could beat Mr. Bush in 1992 if the economy declines.

Someone is wondering, ``Isn't Bentsen too old?'' Nonsense. He's only three years older than Bush who just turned 65. Ronald Reagan was much older.

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Democratic politicians are mentioning Bentsen among possible candidates in '90. But they tend to talk more about the political realities, as they see them, and how the primary system favors a northern candidate - such as a Bill Bradley or a Mario Cuomo.

But Bentsen is now no longer a strictly southwestern candidate. He traveled the entire United States last fall.

Bentsen has the face and name recognition that make him a national candidate. He could win some northern primaries. With a good start, he could contend in the southern primary - on Sen. Albert Gore's home turf.

The Democrats can't win the presidency without the south. Since John Kennedy won a razor-close election in 1960, the only Democrats to make it to the White House were Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. Prior to Mr. Kennedy, one has to go back to Franklin Roosevelt to find a northern Democrat at the nation's helm.

Bentsen, unlike some Democrats, can hold his own with Bush on emotional issues.

He wants punishment of flag burners. He backs capital punishment. And while disliking abortion, he favors choice. Bush wants to abolish abortion. Bentsen's position might be safer in 1990.

Bentsen has kept in touch with his old running mate, Dukakis - providing the Massachusetts governor with encouragement during recent dark days. Liberals won't forget this - and also how diligently he worked to pull out a victory.

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