AUSTIN, Texas — George W. Bush says he's getting close but hasn't decided yet who will be his running mate, but he has decided on a top priority for that choice. "You want somebody who's not going to hurt you," Bush said.
Twelve days before the opening of the national convention that will formally make him the Republican presidential candidate, Bush told reporters at an impromptu news conference on Wednesday: "I will make up my mind soon."
A number of Republicans are urging the Texan to sit on his lead in polls and make a "safe" pick, giving greater weight to a candidate's potential to do harm than his or her prospects for bolstering the ticket.
Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and even Dick Cheney — head of Bush's search — have emerged as favorites of the take-no-chances crowd, though Bush himself has not said whether either is a candidate.
Others mentioned as potential running mates include Govs. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and George Pataki of New York; Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and Fred Thompson and Bill Frist, both of Tennessee; and Rep. John Kasich of Ohio.
The two-term Texas governor has winnowed his list and has shared his thoughts with a small number of advisers, all sworn to secrecy. He could announce his decision as early as Monday, though he has not ruled out waiting until the July 31-Aug. 3 Republican convention in Philadelphia.
In an interview aboard his campaign plane Tuesday, Bush openly ruled out two potential candidates — retired Gen. Colin Powell and Senator Connie Mack of Florida — but stopped and smiled when Cheney's name was mentioned.
"I'm not going there," Bush said.
Republican operative Rich Galen said of Cheney, "He'd be a smart pick, an elder with gravitas," adding that the former defense secretary's history of heart problems might be a factor.
On the Democratic side, the most mentioned running mate prospects for Al Gore are House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and former Maine Sen. George Mitchell.
Warren Christopher, head of Gore's selection effort, has been asking Democratic lawmakers about the idea of picking Mitchell, party sources say.
Bush, in a discussion about the history of vice presidential selections abroad his plane, said a running mate rarely helps a ticket because voters size up the presidential candidate, not his No. 2. On the other hand, a bad or controversial choice can hurt the ticket, he said.
"You want somebody who can do the job, wants the job and is willing to work for you. You want somebody who's not going to hurt you," Bush said. Asked if history suggested that a "safe" pick is the best route, Bush said yes.
However, the Texas governor was careful not to apply that history lesson to his selection process. It wasn't clear if he was tipping his hand or merely ruminating over political theories during an informal chat. He declined, for example, to say whether picking an abortion-rights candidate would be a political risk for his ticket.
Ridge's abortion-rights stance and related feud with Catholic leaders in Pennsylvania has prompted many Republicans to consider him a risky — and increasingly unlikely — pick.
Pataki, another abortion-rights Catholic, is not at odds with his church leadership, thus has seen his stock rise among GOP officials.
Bush advisers say their boss could name an abortion-rights nominee, appealing to moderates, and still retain support of the party's conservative base. But with the governor holding his own against Gore, many Republicans say he doesn't need to take the risk.
"Safe means that he's going Keating," said GOP consultant Scott Reed, who professes no inside knowledge. Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 campaign, said this is no time for Bush to start taking chances.
Kasich and Frist might fall into the "safe pick" category, GOP officials say.
"Bush rolls into the convention ahead five or six (percentage) points in national polls and with 200 electoral votes solid. The smart political move is a safe bet, somebody who helps with the base and somebody who helps with a key coalition," Reed said.
A two-term governor, Keating gained national exposure for his leadership after the Oklahoma City bombing. He is a Catholic who is opposed to abortion and worked briefly in Washington at the Treasury and Justice Departments.
"In the column of do-no-harm there is no better name than Keating," Galen said.
Bush and Keating are close friends, and the Oklahoma governor was asked to submit background information to Cheney.
Several prominent Republicans have said they don't want the job, including Powell, Florida Sen. Mack, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Missouri Sen. John Danforth.
Bush said he took those Republicans at their word "unless they signaled otherwise." He said Powell and Mack have unequivocally ruled out the job; he did not offer the same assessment for Danforth or McCain.
Some House Republicans, either out of support for McCain or concerns about the Bush's purported short list, have urged Bush to select McCain, according to sources in the House and close to the governor.
Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has suggested to Bush allies that McCain would take the job, according to GOP officials. But the Arizona senator's advisers insist Graham is speaking only for himself.
Sources close to Bush and McCain say there have been no formal or informal discussions about pairing the two. McCain has said he doesn't want to be on the ticket, though some advisers say he wouldn't necessarily turn it down. Bush has said he takes McCain at his word.