A few weeks ago I was telling the weekly class of retirees over at the Presbyterian Church that if John Kerry picked Dick Gephardt as his running mate, even I would have to vote for George W. Bush. My point was that Kerry would double his blandness. It was that he would burden the Democrats with twin Beltway insiders of unimaginative liberalism and unappealing styles. Kerry and Gephardt -that looks like a meeting of Artifacts Anonymous. Nowadays you are in trouble enough if you put a longtime Washingtonian at the top of your ticket. You need a governor, a Carter, a Reagan, a Clinton, a Bush the younger. But, my goodness, why repeat the error? It would be like trading for two veteran starting pitchers who might have had a couple of 20-win seasons back there, but whose arms were no longer live. Now it appears I may need to soak those words in barbecue sauce and try my best to get them down. Even exponential blandness beats exponential Bush nominations to the U. S. Supreme Court. What has happened is that Bush's approval rating has plummeted to an alarmingly low level for an incumbent, owing almost exclusively to the Iraq quagmire. It now appears, then, that Kerry's first assignment from here out is not to beat himself. It was Richard Nixon's maxim that a running mate can, at best, do no harm. Bland has become the ticket. Gephardt is the man with the bland. Five months ago he ran in the Democratic caucuses in Iowa with the greatest name identification, vital labor backing and the advantage of being a farm-friendly Democrat from neighboring northern Missouri. He ran fourth, behind Kerry, John Edwards and Howard Dean. Then he dropped out. He was yesterday's Democrat. Now he's the odds-on choice for the vice presidential nomination. One never knows, does one? Gephardt would do no harm. He would create no excitement; he would meet with no hostility. People would sit around at dinner parties and try to remember the name of Kerry's running mate. Except, that is, for one thing, and a mighty thing. Gephardt might give you Missouri. And as Missouri goes, so goes the country - in every presidential election since 1956, anyway. It's a state that one thinks of as Republican, but which threw out John Ashcroft for a dead governor four years ago. And amid that Republican mid-term landslide two years ago, Missouri didn't decide its U. S. Senate race- for Republican Jim Talent over the dead governor's widow - until the wee hours. He got 49.8 percent; she got 48.7 per cent. That is to say that Missouri can be had either way. And that's 11 electoral votes we're talking about. This new Bush vulnerability means Kerry needs no longer to do something pro-active with his selection. John Edwards had been the odds-on, but he wouldn't deliver his own state and might not help even in the two Southern states potentially in play, Arkansas and Louisiana. Wes Clark's stock has risen, but he remains a campaign neophyte - not what you want when the first order of business is not to beat yourself. Weeks ago I'd touted Hillary Clinton, saying she'd put turbo-chargers beneath of the hood of Kerry's creaky European sedan. Now it appears the old sedan might make it on its own, with Gephardt asleep on the passenger side, as George W.'s big SUV tries to get out of the ditch.