WASHINGTON - No one who understands politics will believe the choice of Richard B. Cheney as his running mate will make any significant difference in George W. Bush's chances of winning the presidency in November. The evidence is clear that Americans vote for a president rather than a vice president.
There are, nonetheless, some strongly positive aspects of the decision by the Texas governor. The most significant is that Mr. Cheney is a politically safe and politically conventional selection made by a presidential candidate who is playing safe, conventional politics. He is not likely to embarrass his principal or his party.
Dick Cheney's resume is an asset few, if any, of the other potential choices could match. He was White House chief of staff for President Gerald R. Ford, a leading Republican congressman for a decade and secretary of defense under President George Bush, as well as a business executive. In the House, he was on such a fast track that it is quite possible he would have been the speaker today if he hadn't left for the Cabinet post.
In short, Dick Cheney has been around the block a few times. So the Texas governor has added some obvious weight to the ticket. And by so doing, Mr. Bush seemed to demonstrate a self-confidence that is an essential quality in a successful presidential candidate or president. At the least, he is not intimidated by the possibility his second-in-command will be viewed as the one with the required gravitas.
Quite beyond his resume, Mr. Cheney is a wise choice because of his personal qualities. Although he is devoutly conservative enough to satisfy the most extreme rightists in the Republican Party, Mr. Cheney has always put a pleasant face on his ideology. He has a reputation for getting along with his political opponents and with the press. And, above all, he is considered a straight arrow who can be trusted.
This reputation can be valuable in forestalling any muttering from partisans of the other possibilities for the ticket who lost out. If Mr. Cheney were less highly regarded, it would be no surprise if the losers wondered whether they were bit players in a sham process always rigged for the man running it.
Other than such suspicions, Mr. Cheney has few vulnerabilities. With their customary class, the agents of Vice President Al Gore were carping about how the choice was dictated by the candidate's father. And with his customary class, Mr. Gore himself was smugly boasting about his own "dignified" search for a vice presidential nominee, the clear implication being that Mr. Bush's process failed to qualify in the dignity department.
There is no reason to believe, however, that the Democratic choice will be affected by the Cheney decision. One theory is that Mr. Gore might be more inclined to try to match the Republicans in gravitas by choosing former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine. But the vice president already has foreign policy and national security policy credentials of his own and doesn't need a heavyweight.
So the fact is that, if anything, the choice of Mr. Cheney was conventional enough to give Mr. Gore total freedom in making his own decision without feeling any pressure to match the opposition. That might not have been the case if, for example, Mr. Bush had chosen Elizabeth Dole.
As it has turned out, the Bush decision is consistent with the kind of politics he has played since he nailed down the Republican nomination back in March. He has been cautiously reaching toward the center and to Republican moderates and independents without risking alienation of the cultural conservatives of the religious right. It is no accident that Mr. Cheney has been strongly and consistently opposed to abortion rights - unlike, for example, such other potential choices as Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania.
The choice also is an obvious reflection of Mr. Bush's preference for a small and loyal cadre of close advisers. Mr. Cheney is close-mouthed and discreet, a prized quality in someone helping choose a vice presidential nominee and, as it happens, in a vice president nominee.
In the end, the makeup of the ticket probably won't make a critical difference in the election. But if it is fair to say George W. Bush hasn't made himself a winner with this decision, it is also fair to say he hasn't done himself any harm either.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.