Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge appears the perfect fit as the vice-presidential running mate for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. But a private conversation may have smashed his chances.

A Bush political adviser paid a recent visit to a prominent Roman Catholic archbishop. The adviser, who is not Catholic, asked the prelate, who is from neither Pennsylvania nor Texas, a political question: How would you react to Ridge, a Catholic with mildly pro-choice abortion views, as vice president?

The reply was unequivocal: Being Catholic makes Ridge's pro-choice views worse -- far worse -- to accept on the ticket.

While the official word from Austin publicly rejects any vice-presidential speculation as premature, the prospect of a pro-choice running mate is very much a matter of conjecture in Bush's inner circle.

Although Bush has seemed to extend his rejection of a litmus test for federal judges to a vice-presidential selection (particularly with Ridge at his side in Pittsburgh on his campaign swing), the reality looks different. The litmus test for No. 2 is alive and well. And the word put out by people close to Bush is: Ridge will not be on the ticket.

When Ridge won reelection last year by 798,000 votes (largest ever for a Republican governor in Pennsylvania), his vice-presidential stock soared. An attractive personality with Washington experience as a 12-year congressman, Ridge could help carry an important swing state.

But two weeks after Ridge's 1998 landslide, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Washington aimed a political dagger at him with this statement: "Catholic public officials who disregard church teaching on the inviolability of the human person indirectly collude in the taking of innocent life." Bishop Donald Trautman of Ridge's home town of Erie, Pa., plunged the knife in by saying the governor henceforth would not be welcomed at Catholic meetings in his diocese (this does not affect Ridge's attendance at mass).

Soon after, at the GOP governors' conference in New Orleans, Ridge told me: "You should know that Bishop Trautman has been and continues to be my friend. He leads my faith community back up there in northwestern Pennsylvania." On CNN he added, "I will respect and honor his request." That prompted widespread editorial condemnation of Trautman and the other Catholic bishops. The consensus, at the time, was that the confrontation would not keep Ridge off the ticket.

Bush subsequently named a 12-member presidential exploratory committee, including four pro-choice Republicans. One of its pro-life members, former GOP national chairman Haley Barbour, has publicly declared that now is the time to at least consider a pro-choice running mate. Ridge opposes partial-birth abortions, advocates parental consent for teenage abortions and opposes federal funding. But that is not enough for the pro-life advocates.

Republicans, targeting the Catholic vote, want a Catholic on the ticket for the second time ever (Bill Miller was Barry Goldwater's running mate in 1964). Michigan Gov. John Engler is Catholic, a thrice-proven vote-getter in a swing state and -- unlike Ridge -- safely pro-life.

A prominent pro-life California Republican, noting demands by the state's liberal Republican money base for a pro-choice vice president, told me abortion is not everything. He noted that Ridge was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, served as an infantry staff sergeant, won the Bronze Star for valor and became the war's first enlisted combat soldier elected to Congress. Engler sat out Vietnam with a student deferment.

Might not a warrior on the ticket counteract criticism of Bush's wartime service with the Texas Air National Guard? Not if he is pro-choice. This is still the pro-life party, and abortion trumps military service -- particularly if the abortion rights defender is a Catholic.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.