WASHINGTON -- Saying it is time 'to close ranks,' George McGovern today endorsed Walter Mondale for the Democratic presidential nomination and urged his 23 convention delegates to follow his lead.
McGovern, the first of Mondale's seven rivals to back the former vice president, told reporters it was 'not easy for me' because Gary Hart was director of his 1972 presidential campaign.
'I have decided to endorse Walter Mondale for president because I believe he is not only the likely nominee of the Democratic Party but also because I believe he will be a successful president,' McGovern said.
'It is time ... for the rest of us to close ranks behind the probable nominee of our party,' he said.
McGovern ended his bid for the nomination in March after finishing third Massachusetts. He won 21 delegates in Massachussetts and one delegate in Iowa. He also claims a Hart delegate in Iowa.
Mondale plans to begin interviewing potential running mates next week at his Minnesota home.
Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, has been mentioned as a possible choice for the No. 2 spot but he told reporters today that he does not think he will be on the ticket.
'I don't expect to be asked and I'm not seeking the job,' Bentsen said. 'I'm happy with what I'm doing.' He said the second place spot was likely to go to 'somebody like Gary Hart.'
'I expect to interview many of the candidates myself before I make my decision,' Mondale said Tuesday in a statement. 'I hope to begin these interviews within a week.'
Having gathered more than the 1,967 delegates needed for a first-ballot nomination at the Democratic National Convention next month, Mondale is borrowing a page from Jimmy Carter's game plan.
He is inviting vice presidential aspirants to his home in North Oaks, Minn., near Minneapolis, for job interviews.
In 1976, Mondale, then a Minnesota senator, flew in a small airplane to Plains, Ga., for a session with Carter that led to his joining the ticket.
Ann Stock, Mondale's deputy press secretary, said the interviews are tentatively set to begin Monday. Potential choices are being contacted, but she declined to name anyone.
'Throughout my campaign, I have pledged that the selection of the vice president would include women and minorities. I will ensure that this pledge is honored,' Mondale said.
'I feel very deeply about the need to search as far and as wide as I possibly can for the best candidate, someone who is fully qualified to be president,' he said.
Campaign adviser John Reilly, who heads a search committee for a running mate, 'will make sure that hundreds of Americans are consulted, outstanding candidates identified and careful research conducted,' Mondale said.
Offering vague guidelines for what he seeks, Mondale said he wants a running mate who could 'help break through the bureaucracy and solve complex problems,' would be able to advance a legislative program on Capitol Hill and 'extend the president's reach in foreign policy.'
Mondale, resting at the Long Island estate of a friend in Southhampton, N.Y., flies to Texas Thursday for a fund-raiser for Bentsen.
Meanwhile, Jesse Jackson warned members of the House Democratic Caucus he cannot inspire new party members who are 'disenfranchised en masse,' prompting House Speaker Thomas O'Neill to say he will convene a panel to study convention delegate selection.
Jackson asked O'Neill to put together a group of congressional Democrats -- including blacks, Hispanics and other minorities -- to 'move toward a remedy' of rules he says have denied him a fair share of convention delegates.
Later, Jackson met Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost and other officials and was briefed in preparation for a June 23-28 trip to Panama, Nicaragua and Cuba, where he will meet with Fidel Castro.