Bush milks choice of VP for maximum advantage

But leaks say Cheney is favorite for No. 2 job

July 23, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - It is an article of faith in politics that the selection of a running mate is a defining moment for a future president, even though history shows that vice presidential nominees rarely influence the outcome of a national election.

For Gov. George W. Bush, an unknown quantity to many Americans, the choice could be particularly important. Vice President Al Gore's campaign has raised questions whether Bush has the background and knowledge to be president.

Bush has countered by arguing that as a big-state governor for the past six years, "I have been a decision-maker, [and] I'll be a decisive president."

This week, perhaps as early as tomorrow, the Texas Republican is expected to reveal his choice of a running mate, the product of a months-long selection process and a critical moment for his presidential candidacy.

"It's the first presidential-level decision that the guy makes with the whole world watching, and that's what makes it so important," says Tom Rath, a Bush campaign adviser.

Former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has emerged as Bush's likely pick, a surprise in view of the fact that he's been heading the governor's search for a running mate.

The former Wyoming congressman, currently chairman and chief executive officer of Halliburton Co., a Dallas oilfield services giant, switched his voter registration back to his home state on Friday. The 12th Amendment to the Constitution bars Electoral College members from voting for a president and a vice president who are "inhabitants" of the same state.

Bush, who prizes secrecy and detests press leaks, had hoped to keep a tight lid on the identity of his likely pick.

Campaign staffers were forbidden to talk publicly about potential choices and deliberately kept in the dark about the process. Privately, aides had speculated that at most a half-dozen people, including the governor's small inner circle of advisers; his wife, Laura; and probably his parents, had been aware of Bush's thinking.

But Bush's hopes of springing a surprise on the world this week may have been spoiled when Cheney's name began to leak. Anonymous Bush sources confirmed to reporters that Cheney had become a leading contender.

In breaking their silence on Bush's vice presidential deliberations, the Bush sources appeared to be trying to squelch a boomlet for Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Bush has made it clear that he does not want to run with his former primary rival, but some Republicans in Congress, convinced that a Bush-McCain ticket might help the party in close House contests, had begun pressuring him to change his mind. McCain himself appeared to give the movement support, letting it be known that he would likely accept an offer.

The anonymous Bush sources told reporters that the governor had not made a final pick.

Bush has publicly ruled out several prominent contenders for the vice presidency, including retired Gen. Colin L. Powell and McCain.

Others frequently mentioned include Govs. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, George E. Pataki of New York and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania; Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Fred Thompson of Tennessee; and John C. Danforth, who reported Friday that his investigation of the Branch Davidian siege at Waco found no wrongdoing by the government.

Danforth's name was highlighted yesterday after ABC News reported that the former Missouri senator had had a private meeting with Bush on Tuesday.

Cheney, before he emerged as an unexpected possibility, had publicly taken his own name out of consideration months ago.

The 59-year-old conservative Republican served as White House chief of staff under President Gerald R. Ford and as a congressman from Wyoming before becoming defense secretary under Bush's father. He is a favorite of some within the campaign because, as a running mate, he could ease voter concern about Bush's lack of experience in foreign policy and national security matters.

Cheney is a popular and respected figure in Washington, where Bush remains something of an outsider despite his father's many years of service in the capital. Cheney and his wife, Lynne, a former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, have kept their house in the Northern Virginia suburbs, according to friends.

Cheney suffered three mild heart attacks in the 1970s and 1980s and had coronary bypass surgery in 1988. He had been a key behind-the-scenes campaign adviser to Bush before taking on the task of leading his vice presidential search this spring.

Bush, who has had months to make his decision, told reporters he would make his final choice this weekend. Throughout the process, he has given teasing hints about those who were "on the list," hoping to build interest and suspense around the announcement of his pick.

Campaign strategists say preserving the element of surprise is one of the keys to a successful vice presidential launch.

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