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OKLAHOMA CITY — After meeting and speaking with Oklahoma Gov. Frank
Keating this past week at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City, I had a
glance at what might have been. Although Dick Cheney is a man worthy of
anyone’s respect, Republican nominee George W. Bush may have picked the
wrong candidate as his running mate.

Gov. Keating, as you may remember, was the favorite in the Republican
Party’s vice presidential race right up to the very end. Then Gov. Bush
surprised most political observers by choosing not the man who was
mentioned as a likely VP choice, but the person who was overseeing the
selection process, Dick Cheney. At the time, the decision was viewed
positively. Certainly by anyone’s standards, Dick Cheney could easily
step into the Oval Office and command both national respect and
authority.

But as a campaigner, Dick Cheney has yet to set the world on fire and
his candidacy, to date, has not really equaled that of his Democratic
counterpart, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. First there was
Cheney’s congressional record in which several solidly conservative
votes cast over 20 years ago on gun control and Nelson Mandela now seem
positively antediluvian.

Next were Cheney’s financial ties to Halliburton, which the former
congressman tried to protect but, in the end, had to jettison after
relentless pressure from the press. Lastly came the mini-controversy
over his failure to cast votes in local elections. While hardly the
stuff of a media feeding frenzy, those blips, along with Cheney’s dour
persona have hardly been the campaign trail plus Gov. Bush was expecting
from his running mate.

Compared to Cheney, Gov. Frank Keating is bright, cheerful and eager
to engage a listener in either philosophic, policy or political talk.
He lights up a room when he walks in and comes across as a likable guy
(even if you disagree with him). He has a sense of humor and a sense of
purpose. He clearly is in the Ronald Reagan “sunny conservative” mode
and has made strides to be inclusive in a state that is conservative and
religious. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s residents are classified as
“Christian adherents” which means at least one family member is enrolled
in a church and has gone to a service within the past week. But the
governor will sprinkle his conversation on social issues with references
to imams (the state has 20,000 Muslims), Methodists, black preachers and
rabbis.

He can discuss religion and morality in ways that engage — not
enrage — the average voter. Oklahoma has a very high divorce rate and
Gov. Keating is not ashamed to say that he’s trying to use the state’s
religious community to help bring it down. He’s also not shy about
discussing child poverty (the state recently lowered its poverty rate
from 25 to 20 percent) or other issues that usually belong to Democrats.
In fact, this guy screams compassionate conservatism and would have been
a wonderful fit with Dubya.

It’s true that he doesn’t carry the Washington experience of Dick
Cheney or Joe Lieberman, and an argument could be made that he wouldn’t
be “ready” to step into the Oval Office if necessary. But the same
argument could have applied to Bill Clinton in 1992, Ronald Reagan in
1980 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. Besides, people don’t vote for the
bottom of the ticket, they vote for the top. Yes, he’s pro-life, but
he’s also pro-family in a way that’s not above using government to help
people in need. The Oklahoman could have matched anyone in the
Democratic Party when it came to trading anecdotes on how to help women
and children, always a Republican weakness.

There’s something else about Gov. Keating that would have been
appealing and energizing to Republicans. He’s not afraid to engage in
debate on issues concerning families, religion, and oil. By the way,
have you noticed how those three topics have become critical subjects
along the campaign trail? Gov. Keating wouldn’t have been afraid to
challenge the Democrats on energy policy instead of leaving the field to
them for fear of being branded as toadies of “Big Oil” (which is
happening anyway).

Someone here described it this way: the governor is in his second
term and is primed for policy discussions and campaigning. Dick Cheney
has been gone from the campaign trail for a long time. Perhaps the
former congressman couldn’t have been expected to adapt seamlessly to
the harsh rigors of the modern-day campaign. Maybe in time, Cheney will
use his knowledge and experience (as well as his authority and presence)
to reach out to undecided voters and convince them to pull the lever
(or, more likely, punch the hole) for the GOP.

But if the Republican ticket does go down to defeat in a close race
– and exit polls indicate Joe Lieberman was more of a help to Vice
President Gore than Dick Cheney was to George W. Bush — the decision
not to choose Gov. Keating may be viewed as one that was Oklahoma crude.



Neal Lavon
covers politics and other issues for the Voice of America in Washington. The views he expresses are his own.

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