Saturday, Sept. 20, 1997 | 7:36 a.m.
YOU don't have to be a master chef to see that President Clinton has been cooking up something south of the border for Gov. Bob Miller.
The Clinton administration and Miller did a masterful job last week of positioning the governor as the top candidate to succeed William Weld as the president's nominee for ambassador to Mexico.
Reporters suspected something was up when Miller went out of his way to fuel the speculation. The governor even acknowledged that he once told the president he would like to become ambassador.
All the while, Miller's press secretary, Richard Urey, wasn't hiding the fact around the office that he was brushing up on his Spanish.
Then, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry indicated the president was in no hurry to name a replacement for Weld. A new nominee, he said, probably wouldn't be offered until Congress reconvenes next year.
That seemed to expose the administration's gameplan.
The strategy appears to be one of delaying Miller's appointment well into 1998 to allay fears the governor would be turning over the reins of government to Nevada's favorite brain surgeon, the likable but eccentric Republican Lt. Gov. Lonnie Hammargren.
Miller's dream took a step closer to reality by week's end when the White House finally placed the call to Carson City to formally notify the Guv that he was on the short list.
His nomination, however, isn't a certainty.
In what may be an ultimate irony, Miller's chances of heading for Mexico City could hinge on whether he can rehabilitate Hammargren's image.
Can he persuade Nevadans that elevating Hammargren to the top spot won't be a public relations nightmare for the state at a time when it faces much scrutiny in Washington?
Few will question Hammargren's brilliance and prominence in the medical profession. He also has a heart of gold. But though he's been in public life for several years, as a member of the state Board of Education, the Board of Regents and lieutenant governor, he has had a tough time adjusting to the rules of politics.
Some might find that refreshing. But the fact is that by the time a politician rises to the level of governor, he's expected to sound the part, as well as act it.
Though he's still learning, Hammargren has a way to go before he reaches a comfort level with the public.
Miller and his aides know that making Hammargren look gubernatorial is going to be a tough task, especially since they've been the ones who've been sniping at him the most the past couple of years.
Hammargren is going to be a favorite media target in the coming weeks, even from journalists who have aligned themselves with such right-wing organizations as the Nevada Policy Research Institute, which seemingly would support the lieutenant governor.
So far, Hammargren is doing all the right things when reacting to the possibility he could become acting governor. He's assuring everyone he plans to carry out Miller's agenda, not his own.
That doesn't mean Miller won't be facing one of the biggest political challenges of his career in the coming months, as he pursues his dream of spending meaningful time south of the border.
The investigation into the Great Chip Caper is dribbling its way to the NBA.
State gaming agents, though not lacking in enthusiasm, are having a tough time penetrating the defense of New York Knicks guard Chris Childs and former NBA superstar Dominique Wilkins.
Agents have been trying without success to question the duo about the theft of $134,000 in casino chips during a melee at the MGM Grand following June's ear-biting Holyfield-Tyson fight.
But Childs and Wilkins, who now plays in Europe, have put up a zone to block them from scoring interviews.
Agents, however, are bent on finding an opening to the lane.
"The case is still under investigation," says Keith Copher, chief of enforcement at the state Gaming Control Board. "We are interested in talking to additional people who were at the table."
Last week, Jeffrey Jerome Campbell, a longtime Wilkins hairdresser, may have provided agents with a crack in the defense.
The 35-year-old Campbell turned himself in on grand larceny charges in the theft and was released on $25,000 bail. He's facing some heavy-duty jail time.
Childs and Wilkins are said to have been at the blackjack table with Campbell when the theft occurred. Casino surveillance cameras captured someone at the table stealing a handful of $5,000 chips amid the ruckus.
Recently, more than $60,000 in chips were returned anonymously to the MGM Grand through a Las Vegas lawyer.
Looking for that winning edge, agents hope to open up their offense in the coming weeks.
The new strategy could send them driving past Childs and Wilkins for a slam dunk at the doorstep of the NBA.
It's probably fitting that the National Gambling Impact Study Commission holds its next meeting in Washington on Halloween.
The nine-member panel, which will study the social and economic impact of gambling in America over the next two years, has gotten off to a scary start.
Chairwoman Kay Cole James, a member of the religious right, is using the commission to conduct a witch hunt of the casino industry.
On Oct. 31, which also happens to be Nevada Day, a holiday James obviously could care less about, the commission will conduct the business it should have done last month.
That will include selecting an executive director, defining its work plan and setting a road schedule.
It's an ambitious, but potentially ghoulish, agenda.