WASHINGTON - Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney is recovering from what doctors call a ''very slight'' heart attack that rocked an already extraordinary presidential contest.
But aides to GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush, who insisted Wednesday that they had not tried to conceal the heart attack, say Cheney will be able to resume his duties with the campaign as it fights Democrat Al Gore for the clinching electoral votes in Florida.
''We anticipate that he will continue to be available by phone and the doctors have told us that there are no limitations,'' Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said Wednesday. ''He's been involved in the conference calls and the decision making and we expect that will continue.''
Her comments came after Bush declared his running mate ''healthy'' and reported that he had not had a heart attack - based, Hughes said, on a diagnosis by Cheney's doctors that they released to the public at about 2:30 p.m. EST.
''Dick Cheney is healthy. He did not have a heart attack,'' Bush told reporters in Texas - even as his running mate was undergoing surgery in a Washington hospital, which Bush did not mention.
In fact, the doctors had known since noon that Cheney actually had suffered a heart attack and that one of his arteries had been 90 percent blocked before doctors performed surgery to prop it open.
Hughes later said Bush did not know about the heart attack at the time he spoke. Despite the diagnosis, she said, Bush had no thoughts of replacing Cheney as a running mate.
''There are no limitations on his activity and his ability to serve as vice president,'' she said.
Bush long has known the details of Cheney's heart disease. Cheney suffered three heart attacks more than a decade ago and underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1988 to clear clogged arteries. Doctors gave him a clean bill of health when Bush chose him as his running mate this summer but Cheney has since then refused to release his old medical records.
Hughes also said Wednesday that Cheney has suffered chest pains in the past.
By late Wednesday afternoon, the hospital held a second news conference to announce the changed diagnosis. ''There was a very slight heart attack,'' Dr. Alan Wasserman, a professor of medicine and cardiology at George Washington University Hospital, said.
President Clinton said he hoped Cheney would be ''well and fine.''
''I need to call him and write him a note,'' Clinton told reporters. ''I hope he's fine.''
Under the worst circumstances, a vice president-in-waiting who becomes unable to take office may be replaced by the presidential candidate with the blessing of his party - as long as that happens before the Electoral College meets Dec. 18.
The campaign, for its part, at first sought to play down the episode and to focus on its continuing battle with Gore for Florida's 25 electoral votes.
Bush, talking to reporters, called Cheney's decision to go to the hospital ''a precautionary measure.''
Cheney's hospitalization came only a few hours after the Bush campaign was stung by a Florida Supreme Court decision to permit manual recounting of ballots in three Democratic-leaning Florida counties, a key victory for Gore.
Still, doctors said they did not think campaign-related stress was a factor in Cheney's condition.
Bush and his aides brushed off questions about the stability of the GOP ticket and whether they were making contingency plans in case Cheney's illness prevented him from planning any White House transition or serving a new Bush administration.
''Secretary Cheney will make a great vice president,'' Bush said, before launching a more lengthy attack on Gore and the Florida justices.
Asked whether it would be prudent for Bush to have a backup plan, Hughes replied: ''No, it's not.'' She added that Cheney has had similar pains in recent years, but not since Bush picked him to be his running mate.
Cheney admitted himself to the hospital about 4:30 a.m. EST Wednesday with chest pains, his wife Lynne at his side. Testing two hours later revealed an artery that had narrowed since his last heart checkup in 1996, according to Wasserman.
Through a blood vessel in his leg, doctors threaded a stent to prop open the narrowed artery, a minimally invasive surgical procedure that didn't require putting Cheney under general anesthesia. It should prevent further symptoms, Wasserman said.
Cheney had the procedure performed around 10:30 a.m. EST and was back in his hospital room resting comfortably, Wasserman said.
''It would be exceedingly unlikely for him to undergo a repeat bypass operation,'' Dr. Jonathan Reiner, Cheney's personal physician, told reporters.