WASHINGTON — Ever since launching his candidacy last summer, George W. Bush has gone out of his way to avoid suggesting that a second Bush presidency would simply revive the first.
Fearful of raising questions about his independence, the Texas governor has rarely campaigned with his father, former President Bush, and he has conspicuously denied key strategy roles to his father's most prominent advisors.
But now, all signs indicate that the younger Bush is seriously considering reaching into his father's Cabinet for his running mate, with former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney emerging as a leading choice in a decision that could be announced imminently.
With Vice President Al Gore consistently charging that the younger Bush's policies would reproduce the economic slowdown that helped drive his father from office, some say that association could pose a political risk to the governor, some analysts believe.
"Even though it's not in the economic arena, it'll give Gore an opportunity to say: 'Is everyone ready to return to those times . . . or do you think we are doing well now?' " says Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington.
While cautioning that Bush is considering others, the governor's top aides effectively pointed toward Cheney on Sunday by aggressively defending him on the network talk shows against questions about his health and ties to the oil industry.
They also dismissed questions about Cheney's potential political risks, maintaining that he has enough independent stature that he will not strike voters merely as a holdover from the elder Bush's presidency. To the contrary, some Bush insiders believe a Cheney selection would help the younger Bush tie himself to a different tradition he has emphasized on the campaign trail: a less partisan style of politics than Washington has seen in recent years.
Indeed, it's striking that both of the names apparently leading Bush's vice presidential candidate list--Cheney and former Sen. John C. Danforth of Missouri--spring from an earlier generation of Republican politicians generally less combative and ideological than the "revolutionary" conservatives who have dominated the congressional GOP since 1994.
"They are a lot less partisan," says one senior Bush aide. "They are back from the time when Washington hadn't gotten so bitter." In that sense, the selection of either could reinforce Bush's message that he intends to bring "a different tone" to Washington--though Democrats believe both may carry political vulnerabilities of their own.
The Sunday network talk shows were dominated by discussion of Bush's choice of a running mate. Bush aides say the governor is expected to remain at his Texas ranch until late this afternoon, when he will return to Austin. They said a decision could be announced as soon as Tuesday; the Republican convention opens in Philadelphia a week from today.
On Sunday, Bush campaign communications director Karen Hughes did nothing to dampen the speculation that Cheney, the 59-year-old who has been leading the search for a running mate, could emerge as the candidate himself. On NBC's "Meet the Press," she was asked whether Cheney's decision on Friday to switch his voter registration from Texas to Wyoming--to clear a constitutional question about whether the president and vice president can hail from the same state--meant he was under serious consideration.
In contrast to the campaign's usually guarded comments about potential running mates, Hughes said directly: "I think that is a serious step, and I think it indicates that Secretary Cheney is willing to be seriously considered."
Likewise, Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist, forcefully insisted that Cheney's health--he suffered three mild hearts attacks by age 48--did not concern the campaign.
"Those heart attacks occurred in the '70s and '80s, and he then served as secretary of Defense in President Bush's administration and presided over" the Persian Gulf War, Rove said on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation." "I don't know of a more stressful situation than being secretary of Defense during an armed combat, and he seemed to do just fine."
The Associated Press reported Sunday that Cheney underwent a physical exam recently and received a clean bill of health.
Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," Danforth sent a very different signal, disappointing some Bush aides with his tone. A moderate former three-term senator who retired in 1994, Danforth met secretly with Bush last week to discuss the job after earlier ruling himself out of consideration. But in the Fox interview, the 63-year-old Danforth again emphasized his reluctance to serve.
"I am very, very reluctant to get back into public life," he said.
While adding, "if it were a matter of duty, that is a different question," Danforth said he "would certainly discourage" his selection. Later, he told reporters he thought Bush would tab Cheney.