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.
"A surprise guarantees the loudest megaphone," says Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. "It becomes a worldwide story for a couple of days, and it helps you get off to a running start."
At the same time, Reed adds, it's important to select someone the party faithful will embrace and who can make it through the first few days of intense public scrutiny without a stumble.
In discussing his decision, Bush says he wants someone who could take over as president, if that became necessary, and who could be counted on to remain loyal to the administration, as his father was for eight years as Ronald Reagan's vice president.
Bush has also said he wants someone he could work well with, a person who could bring "an interesting dimension to the administration."
Someone who could carry a major state "would be helpful," Bush says. Only Ridge, the governor of Pennsylvania, would appear to fall into that category, but Ridge's support for abortion rights and his uneasy relationship with leaders of his Catholic faith over that issue have made him an unlikely choice, Republican politicians say.
Campaign officials have said the announcement of Bush's running mate could come as early as tomorrow in Austin, the Texas capital. On Friday, Bush and his choice are expected to leave on a five-day campaign tour that will wind up in Philadelphia, site of the Republican National Convention.
Unveiling a vice presidential pick in advance of the party convention has become a vehicle for generating excitement and support for the ticket.
In 1992, Bill Clinton's selection of Al Gore - who seemed to defy traditional wisdom by being too close to the nominee geographically and generationally - was a hit with voters, who were attracted to the youthful, attractive pairing of the candidates and their wives.
Republicans have typically waited until the convention was under way to select their vice presidential nominee. The only recent exception was Dole, who chose Jack Kemp two days before the last convention began.
Bush's father became Reagan's choice on the third night of the 1980 convention, after the collapse of talks to have Ford become co-president on a GOP "dream ticket."
Eight years later, the elder Bush astonished the Republican convention by choosing Dan Quayle, an obscure Indiana senator. Quayle's debut quickly turned to political disaster when he fumbled questions about his service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War.
The result was the unwanted alternative to a successful surprise announcement: the unfortunate surprise.
"That is the danger," says William Connelly, a political scientist at Washington and Lee University. "Obviously, George W. and Dick Cheney are well aware of the danger. They don't want a repeat of 1988."
It has been Cheney's responsibility to assemble financial and medical information on the finalists for the nomination.
Such vetting has become a routine in the aftermath of another unfortunate surprise: the selection of Sen. Thomas Eagleton for the 1972 Democratic ticket.
Eagleton was forced to withdraw after it was revealed that he had undergone electroshock therapy for depression, something nominee George S. McGovern had not known at the time he chose him.
Cheney and the Bush team managed to carry out the background checks without allowing others to know which candidates were being investigated. In the process, they appeared to have preserved the element of surprise that politicians crave.
Bush's father, writing in his private diary in the days after the '88 convention, noted with satisfaction that the first reactions to the selection of Quayle had been positive.
"The surprise dominated," he confided.
But as Quayle became a running joke on late-night TV, Bush wrote, "It was my decision, and I blew it, but I'm not about to say that I blew it."
After those comments became public three years ago, the former president said he had been referring to the public relations disaster, not to his decision to choose Quayle.
Even in the best of circumstances, politicians say, the choice of a running mate is a short-lived event. Voters make their decisions based on the person at the top of the ticket.
In 1988, the senior Bush's vigorous defense of his embattled running mate was seen as a political plus, helping to dispel the then-vice president's image as a "wimp." Still, the Bush team had Quayle campaign in smaller towns and cities and in states where the outcome wasn't in doubt.
When Bush won the election, exit polls indicated that doubts about his running mate were not enough of a factor to influence the outcome.