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GOP's Dick Cheney thinks about a run for the White House

The Quiet Man of the Republican Party is quietly positioning himself for a possible 1996 presidential race. Dick Cheney, sometime secretary of defense, sometime White House chief of staff, is thinking that next time, he just might be the guy to carry the GOP banner.

As usual, Cheney is going about his work in the most unobtrusive way possible. I caught up with him the other day in his office at the American Enterprise Institute, next door to where his wife, Lynne, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is writing a book on the conflicts between academia and the rest of America. He said his stay at the mainstream conservative think tank, where he has been since the Bush administration came to an end, "has been almost a sabbatical."

He's joined four Fortune 500 company boards and has been out a lot on the speaking circuit. But this summer, if you want to find him, you'll have to search out one of his favorite trout streams or get the number of his new vacation home in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Cheney, like others, says, "I do my best thinking with a fly rod in my hand," and by the time the summer's fishing is over, "I expect to have made my plans."

On the face of it, Cheney is an implausible challenger for the presidency. His only election victories have come in House races in one of the nation's most lightly populated states. By 1996, the last of his six Wyoming congressional campaigns will be eight years in the past.

His assets are largely a byproduct of the public and private persona that he has developed _ a sense of gravity, seriousness, competence and self-confidence, unmarred by either pomposity or obvious self-promotion. As one former House colleague, a Democrat, put it, "I trust Dick, and so does damn near everyone who knows him."

That quality has served the 52-year-old Cheney well since he came to Washington as a young congressional staffer. He was only 34 when he succeeded his mentor, Don Rumsfeld, as the top assistant on President Ford's staff.

The pattern was the same in the House of Representatives, to which he was elected two years after Ford's defeat. He had been there only four years when his colleagues chose him for the No. 3 job in the GOP leadership. A few years later, he became the deputy leader. But he left no trail of embittered, angry rivals behind him.

Cheney owes his national prominence to the Senate's rejection of the late John Tower, President Bush's first choice for secretary of defense. Rebuffed in the Tower fight, Bush needed someone who was ready to take over quickly and who could be easily confirmed. Cheney filled the bill.

Two issues that were aired at his confirmation hearings for the Pentagon post would undoubtedly get close scrutiny again in a presidential race: the string of student and marital deferments that kept him out of military service during the Vietnam War and the three heart attacks in 1978, 1984 and 1988 and the bypass surgery that followed the last of those attacks.

Political pros close to Cheney have told him that he would have to "confront" those questions at the outset of a national campaign, but that they are unlikely to persist.

His biggest asset, says one potential Cheney campaign strategist, is that "he's even better on television than he is in person," low-key, thoughtful, plainspoken and reassuring. The contrast to the voluble Jack Kemp or the sometimes caustic Bob Dole "will be amazing," says this man.

Americans got to know Cheney from his television briefings during the Persian Gulf War and the capture of Manuel Noriega. It clearly does not hurt that he is personally identified with such successes of the Bush era, not its domestic controversies or failures.

Cheney's congressional voting record is conservative enough on all the "litmus-test" issues including abortion to satisfy the Reaganites who form the hard-core constituency of the nominating primaries. Lynne Cheney, an articulate speaker and writer, is a heroine to conservatives for her stands on "political correctness" and multiculturalism. But their friendships and alliances span the Republican spectrum. Together, they might make a formidable match for the power-couple in the White House today.

Washington Post Writers Group