AUSTIN, Texas - The Republican ticket of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney made its campaign debut here yesterday, with Bush lavishing praise on his running mate's "great integrity and judgment and experience."
By tapping a member of his father's Cabinet, the Texas governor made a safe choice that seemed designed more to reassure Americans about the competence of a new Bush administration than to excite voters in November.
Though Cheney, 59, is only five years older than Bush, he is associated with an older generation of Republicans. Bush passed over a number of fellow baby boomers, as well as Republicans such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, who, polls show, might have attracted more swing votes.
Apparently confident of defeating Vice President Al Gore on his own, Bush turned instead to the former defense secretary who has been a valued campaign adviser for months, the past three as head of his vice presidential search team.
"Gradually, I realized that the person who was best qualified to be my vice presidential nominee was working by my side," Bush said, beaming as he announced his decision six days before the start of the Republican National Convention.
Bush said he was running with Cheney "because he is, without a doubt, fully capable of being president of the United States, and he will be a valuable partner in a Bush administration."
Cheney, who in 1995 considered running for president, told Bush in March that he wasn't interested in the vice presidency. He said he did not want to leave his job as head of Halliburton Co., a giant oilfield services company in Dallas.
But on July 3 at Bush's central Texas ranch, Bush asked Cheney to reconsider.
According to campaign spokeswoman Karen Hughes, Bush's wife, Laura, recalled that her husband had said of Cheney on that occasion: "This would really be the best man if he would do it. I really wish he would."
After talking with his family, Cheney agreed to be considered. He underwent a physical examination on July 11 in Washington and met privately with Bush to discuss his personal finances.
Cheney's health has been a subject of considerable discussion because he suffered three heart attacks between the late 1970s and 1988 and underwent coronary bypass surgery in 1988.
The campaign released a pair of one-page statements yesterday from physicians at the George Washington University Medical Center, describing Cheney as being in "excellent health."
The statement by Dr. Gary Malakoff, his primary-care physician, revealed that Cheney had been treated for skin cancer and continues to be monitored for the disease. The statement also said that Cheney has suffered "several minor instances of gout" and takes "a long list of medications," which was not disclosed.
His cardiologist, Dr. Jonathan S. Reiner, said that Cheney exercises on a treadmill for 30 minutes several times a week and leads a "vigorous lifestyle" despite having suffered "moderate" heart damage consistent with his history of heart attacks. The statement also said that Cheney has been "essentially" free of symptoms of heart disease for more than a decade after his bypass operation.
Bush, after being told by Cheney that his doctors considered him fit to serve as vice president, asked his father, former President George Bush, to have Dr. Denton Cooley, a Houston heart surgeon, review Cheney's records.
The involvement of the elder Bush remains a sensitive one within the campaign, because the Texas governor desires to be seen as a leader in his own right and not an extension of his father's administration.
Bush stuck closely to his prepared text yesterday in announcing his selection of Cheney, noting his running mate's experience as White House chief of staff to President Gerald R. Ford and as defense secretary to his father without mentioning either former president by name.
Democrats were quick to seize on published reports that George Bush had enthusiastically endorsed his son's choice of a former Cabinet secretary from his administration. The New York Times reported that Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser in the Bush administration, had told the former president about a month ago that Cheney was interested in being considered for vice president.
"From Brent Scowcroft to Bush Senior to Bush Junior," said Gore strategist Bob Shrum.
Shrum asserted that Bush's candidacy could suffer if the public sees Cheney as a figure from his father's administration whose presence was needed on the ticket to shore up the governor's lack of seasoning.
Bush's spokeswoman confirmed that the former president is a behind-the-scenes campaign adviser, playing the political role of "the loving father." Besides asking Cooley to review Cheney's record, the former president offered opinions about several prospective vice-presidential candidates, whom Hughes declined to identify.
Bush told Cheney last Wednesday that he was being seriously considered, according to Hughes, to give Cheney time to prepare his company for his departure. Then, at 6:22 yesterday morning, Texas time, the governor phoned with a formal offer.
After accepting, Cheney turned to his wife, Lynne, and said: "Honey, sell the house. I'm quitting my job. We're going back into politics," according to Hughes.
A few hours later, the ticket-mates and their wives appeared for a 15-minute announcement on the University of Texas campus.
"I believe you are looking at the next vice president of the United States," the governor told several hundred supporters. Cheney, grinning, slouched casually behind, his hands in his pockets.
In brief remarks, Cheney said he "honestly did not expect" to become the nominee. But he said his work alongside Bush had persuaded him to change his mind.
"Governor, I'm honored and proud to join your team, and I enthusiastically accept the challenge, for this reason: I believe you have the vision and the courage to be a great president," Cheney said.
Expecting Democratic criticism, the Bush campaign released a catalog of pro-Cheney quotes from the opposition. Included were remarks by then-Sen. Gore at Cheney's 1989 confirmation hearings, offering his "respect" for Cheney and applauding his selection as defense secretary.
Reacting to Bush's pick, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle noted Cheney's conservative voting record during his 11 years in Congress and termed him "probably as far right as anybody in the Republican Party today."
Others Democrats seized on his recent work as an oil-industry executive.
"It's the first all-oil ticket," said Shrum, the Gore adviser. As is his father, Bush is a former oilman, having run a small independent petroleum company in the 1980s.
Gore reacted mildly to the news of his rival's pick. "There is no question that the American people will have a choice between two very different tickets" this fall, he said.
Gore aides contend that Bush, who wants to be seen as a different kind of Republican, was utterly conventional in choosing his running mate.
Instead, he found in Cheney a figure from the GOP past whose position on issues such as the environment and abortion is sharply conservative.
As a Wyoming congressman, Cheney voted for legislation in the late 1970s and early 1980s that would have barred federally funded abortion services even in cases of rape and incest. Bush opposes abortion rights but would make exceptions in those cases and to save the life of the mother.
Cheney, in an interview on CNN's "Larry King Live" last night, said he has not altered his anti-abortion views, but added that he has "no problem" supporting Bush's position.
Selecting Cheney shows "most of all that Bush doesn't have the guts to stand up to the far right," said Mark Fabiani, the Gore campaign's communications director.
Republican reaction was positive. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott praised Cheney as a "very thoughtful" and "highly respected" figure. Bush's campaign chairman, Don Evans, said that the choice of Cheney "is not about politics" but about finding someone who "is ready to be the president."
"America is going to see two men who are ready to show real leadership," Evans said.