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WASHINGTON — There are three defining events for a candidate in the U.S. presidential campaign, events that reveal the candidate in a unique and important way. They are the selection of the vice-presidential candidate, the candidate’s appearance at the convention, and the debates.

The selection of a running mate tells a lot about the candidate and his perceptions of himself, of the job he seeks and of his personal strategy for the campaign. The candidate’s speech at the conclusion of his nominating convention is his best opportunity to explain himself and his program to U.S. voters. It is the first time that many of them will pay any attention to the candidate and begin to make judgments about him. The debates provide a crucible in which to test both candidates’ mettle.

Two of those three events happen at convention time. Texas Gov. George W. Bush named former Defense Secretary Richard Cheney as his vice-presidential selection two weeks ago, and he made his coming-out speech at the Republican National Convention last week in Philadelphia. Vice President Al Gore, vacationing in North Carolina, announced that he would make his vice-presidential choice public Aug. 8. His convention appearance will take place Aug. 17. The debates will be in October.

The selection of Cheney as the Republican candidate for vice president has delighted both Republicans and Democrats. The Republicans remember and respect him for his service as chief of staff for President Gerald Ford, as a six-term congressman from Wyoming and as secretary of defense at the time of the Persian Gulf War in the Cabinet of President George Bush. The Democrats see him as an excellent target in several key voter groups because of his congressional voting record.

What does Cheney’s selection tell us about Bush? It tells us that he is confident of being elected and has focused his choice of running mate on governance rather than campaigning. Cheney is great personal support for George W. He has been in the caldron of the White House. He is an expert on military-defense matters and world affairs. He is well-liked in Congress, where many of his old colleagues now hold power. And he seems to be extremely compatible personally with Bush.

From the electoral point of view, Cheney brings very little to the table. He is from Wyoming; its three electoral votes are already posted in the Republican column. He does give the mainstream, conservative wing of the Republican Party great comfort. He is one of them. But Bush is also one of them, and he already had their enthusiastic support locked up.

Choosing him, Bush tends to define himself that way, too, despite his “compassionate conservative” rhetoric.

So why are the Democrats so happy? They believe Cheney’s conservative record opens up enormous opportunities for them. Cheney is unabashedly prolife on the abortion question. He has spoken often and consistently on that subject. In his congressional service, he found himself among small minorities on the conservative side of important social issues — opposing, among other things, the Head Start program for preschool youngsters, child-nutrition programs and family violence-prevention programs. He opposed every attempt to control guns, firearms or high-powered ammunition, including the ban on armor-piercing bullets. His record on environmental issues is similarly consistent in opposing anything remotely green.

One problem for Democrats is Cheney’s persona. He is the picture of moderation. How can such a nice man be a real ogre? That is the challenge — to explain how this nice, gentle man can be such a bad guy.

Bush got a bit of a bounce from his Cheney announcement. It dominated the political news and Bush pushed his numbers up to about a six- to 10-point lead in the various weekend polls. The convention should surely bounce the candidate a few more points.

I must give the Republican convention planners and staff credit. They delivered a strong and cogent message through the media from their convention. That is what it is all about, and it was well-done.

All the while, Gore and his wife, Tipper, vacationed on the beaches of North Carolina. They appeared for a picture opportunity every day, but otherwise, the vice president was taking quiet time. The selection of Cheney seems to give Gore a broader choice of options on his own running mate. Had Bush selected a woman or an ethnic candidate — or Sen. John McCain, with his special magic among the disaffected independent voters — Gore would be constrained to counter with his choice. But Cheney does not expand the Bush landscape, so Gore can be creative or conservative, depending on his view of what will best help him win the presidency.

A good friend who is a longtime insider in Democratic Party politics and the Clinton administration is discouraged about the course of the Gore campaign. His analysis of the race is a good one. There are two separate categories in play in the election, he says. There is the issues category and the personality category.

In the issues category, poll after poll tells us that the voters are happy with things as they are and want no change. In the personality category, people want a lot of change. They are fed up with the persona of President Bill Clinton and the “mess” he brought to the White House.

Bush is doing very well in both categories of the election. His message on the issues is that a Bush administration would not bring significant change, just a few improvements around the edges. “Compassionate conservatism” is just Republican slang for “New Democrat,” he says. “There will be no change in economic philosophy. America’s record prosperity will continue.”

In the personality contest, Bush promises lots of change. “In demeanor, in style, in morals, George W. Bush will be different from Bill Clinton — and you can bet on it,” is his message.

Gore, on the other hand is not faring well in either category. Rather than staking his claim to participating in creating the boom that the voters enjoy and want, Gore is advancing a number of liberal concepts that are distracting voters from the message of continuity. It reminds my friend of the Dukakis campaign of 1988, which imploded under the weight of its liberal agenda.

Gore has not been able to separate himself from the Clinton personality legacy. He is a totally different type of person, but his association with and support for Clinton are taking their toll in the perception of the electorate.

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