Washington Former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney emerged Friday as the leading candidate to be George W. Bush's running mate, with the Texas governor turning to a respected Washington insider in the final days of his search, two highly placed GOP officials said.
The former lawmaker, White House chief of staff and Defense Secretary -- the man heading up Bush's search team -- changed his voter registration Friday from Texas to Wyoming to ensure he is eligible for the job if Bush decides to offer it, said the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Texas governor himself said he has not finalized his decision but will do so this weekend, promising to ponder "long and hard" in the privacy of his Texas ranch. "The days of speculation are over," Bush said, and aides indicated an announcement could come as early next week, just days before the July 31 opening of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.
The emergence of Cheney serves to shift focus away from a campaign by at least 60 House lawmakers to get Arizona Sen. John McCain on the ticket. Bush advisers say he has shown no inclination toward selecting his vanquished rival, and the lobbying effort is viewed as an unwelcome distraction at Bush's headquarters in Austin, Texas.
Other names that have figured prominently in the speculation including Govs. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and George Pataki of New York; Rep. John Kasich of Ohio; Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and Fred Thompson and Bill Frist, both of Tennessee.
A respected public figure with a long record of service, Cheney would be a low-risk pick, something Bush signaled this week he wants.
At 59, he is just five years older than Bush but would bring a range of experience and stature lacking in the presumptive nominee. Bush has tried to close the gravitas gap with Vice President Al Gore, his Democratic rival, by suggesting that Washington veterans such as retired Gen. Colin Powell and McCain may be part of his administration.
One of the sources called Cheney the leading candidate, saying Bush was very close to settling on the man who once served under Bush's father -- former President Bush. A second official, also familiar with the selection process, cautioned that Bush normally doesn't rank his personnel choices in terms of front-runners and leading candidates.
Both sources said Bush could still turn elsewhere, noting that he has kept his own counsel.
The officials made the disclosure after confirming that Cheney, a Texas businessman, switched his voter registration to Wyoming. Later, Teton County Election Administrator Sharon Nethercott said Cheney changed his registration at the county clerk's office in person and alone late Friday morning.
Cheney wanted to avoid conflict with language in the 12th Amendment of the Constitution that forbids the Electoral College voters in Texas from voting for both the president and vice president who are "inhabitants" of their state.
Cheney, who has a history of heart trouble, would be a surprise pick. He suggested weeks ago that he would not be a candidate, after accepting the job of reviewing the backgrounds of potential candidates and helping Bush narrow his list.
Cheney worked in the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Cost of Living Council and the White House in the 1970s, serving as President Ford's chief of staff. He served six terms in Congress from Wyoming before going to the Pentagon under President Bush, where he was a key strategist in the Persian Gulf War.
The younger Bush plucked Cheney from Halliburton Co., a Dallas-based oil services company, where he was chief executive officer.
In Congress, Cheney appealed to moderates, but racked up a conservative voting record and was a solid Ronald Reagan supporter. He was mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate for Bush in 1992.
As Pentagon chief during the Bush years, Cheney had a high-ranking gay aide. He is anti-abortion but says the party must accommodate Republicans on both sides of the debate.
Cheney suffered three mild heart attacks by age 48, including one while campaigning for the Wyoming House seat in the primaries. He has undergone coronary bypass surgery.
A rare black mark on his record: He admitted writing 21 bad checks while serving in the House, but told the Ethics Committee that investigated the House banking scandal that he always had a positive balance and no checks were returned for insufficient funds.
In 1991, he gave Pentagon briefings to GOP supporters who donated $5,000 to the Republican National Committee.
Cheney emerged as the leading contender as the Bush campaign tried to dampen a lobbying effort on behalf of McCain.
The Arizona senator, who battled Bush unsuccessfully for the nomination -- and is anything but close to the Texas governor -- was injected forcefully into the late speculation. Several GOP sources said the head of the GOP House campaign committee, Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, had solicited signatures on a letter to the Bush campaign urging consideration of the Arizona senator.
Bush gave no indication he would be influenced by the pressure, and observed he was certain that McCain would be a "loyal soldier for my candidacy."
McCain said, "I don't believe anything has changed" since a May meeting in which he told Bush he did not want to be considered.
McCain's political director, John Weaver, said he called Bush campaign manager Joe Allbaugh on Friday and said, "John's position has not changed since Pittsburgh and he doesn't want to be asked." In a subtle but important distinction, McCain has been more firm in the past, saying he doesn't want to be asked or serve as vice president.
About 60 Republicans -- more than one-fourth of the House GOP caucus -- signed the letter urging Bush to choose his one-time rival for the nomination, asserting that the only thing Democrat Al Gore fears "is George W. Bush calling John McCain."
The wording was disclosed by a Republican official who had the letter read to him. The extraordinary public attempt to influence a nominee on the eve of his convention reflects the enormous stakes for November.
GOP leaders are struggling to hold their majority this fall in the face of a determined Democratic campaign for control. And they are eager for a national ticket that can appeal across party lines to the independents and Democratic voters who are likely to be pivotal in the battle for control of the House.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- AP Writers David Espo and Tom Raum contributed to this story.