Column: No better choice than Keating

Frank Keating showed what manner of man he is in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing five years ago.

While Bill Clinton was 1,150 miles away in Washington, shamelessly blaming his political foes for precipitating the worst terrorist bombing in American history, Keating was on the ground in Oklahoma's capital city defusing public hysteria.

Keating played the role of healer and uniter, helping the Sooner State's 3.4 million residents overcome their shock and grief.

His statesmanlike handling of the crisis, a mere three months after his election as Oklahoma's governor, earned him national plaudits.

The latest political buzz has it that George W. Bush has decided to ask Keating to run alongside him in November. If so, the Republican presidential nominee could not select a worthier ticket mate.

Sure, Keating is a not-very-well-known quantity to voters. And he hails from a state that boasts a mere eight electoral votes; a state that almost certainly will go for Bush with or without the Oklahoma governor on the ticket.

But having a high-profile, nationally known running mate is overrated. What's more important is that the man at the bottom of the ticket be compatible with the man at the top. After all, they hope to spend eight years together.

As for the electoral calculus, it's always nice to have a running mate from a vote-rich state like New York or California. But Bush himself hails from such a state. Therefore, he needn't be so concerned about his ticket mate's home state.

Besides, Clinton came from a state that has only six electoral votes and had a running mate who came from a state with only 11. So, in that context, Bush and Keating are 23 electoral votes ahead of the game.

In the final analysis, the election in November will come down to issues. And that is where Keating would add much to the Republican ticket.

For the Oklahoma governor has not only proven his leadership mettle under the most trying of circumstances -- the horrific mass murder of 168 of his fellow Oklahomans -- he also boasts an admirable record in a state in which Democrats happen to control both houses of the legislature.

Indeed, in 1998, Keating won passage of the largest broad-based tax cut in Oklahoma history, including reductions in the state's income tax rate, sales tax and estate tax.

Meanwhile, he has vetoed a record number of spending bills that he deemed excessive -- much to the consternation of his Democratic-controlled legislature -- and has carried out a state government hiring freeze to save even more tax dollars.

The Republican thrashed out a school-reform bill with his legislature last year that included school choice, charter schools and tougher graduation requirements.

The result is that Oklahoma now boasts one of the 15 toughest high-school curriculums in the nation, which Education Week hailed as "the most significant improvement of any state."

Keating took on his state's trial lawyers by negotiating tort reform with the legislature to lower punitive damages in civil suits. He also backed welfare reforms that have reduced the state's public assistance rolls by 70 percent over the past five years.

A Bush-Keating ticket will be able to differentiate itself from Gore-whomever on the issues of tax cuts, school choice and tort reform, among others. But it is on social issues where the distinctions will be most stark, where Republicans stand to score the most points with the electorate.

Public opinion polls indicate that Americans are very much concerned about the decline of values during the age of Clinton (and Gore). They want their leaders to set high moral and ethical standards.

Keating is such a leader. Indeed, under the two-term governor, Oklahoma became the first -- and so far, only -- state in the country to set aside a significant portion of welfare money to promote marriage and curb divorce.

This socially conservative initiative, which drives liberal Democrats crazy, acknowledges the deleterious consequences of family breakdown in American society.

Keating has also launched a campaign to crack down on illegal drugs in Oklahoma. (The state ranks second in the nation in the amount of methamphetamine seized.) And while he is willing to increase funding for drug-abuse treatment facilities, he is not about to advocate "decriminalization" or any such squishy policy.

He intends to get even tougher on druggies, dismissing the myth promulgated by soft-on-drugs liberals that prisons are teeming with nonviolent drug offenders who pose no threat to society.

Frank Keating would make an excellent vice president, one with whom middle America can identify. George W. Bush cannot go wrong by making the Oklahoma governor his ticket mate.

(Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.)

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