Defense Secretary Dick Cheney favors high-heel cowboy boots and alpine skiing - although not at the same time, he quips with a flash of the humor that may help him survive the rigors of running the Pentagon.

A genial manner, unflappable poise and plenty of friends in both political parties seem to be major assets of Cheney, 48, a conservative Republican congressman from Wyoming who breezed to Senate confirmation in one week flat as President Bush's emergency replacement for John Tower.Another plus is a straight-arrow lifestyle and reputation for integrity that allowed the Senate - with a sigh of relief - to brush aside the character questions that sank Tower under allegations about strong drink, womanizing and cozy ties with defense contractors.

Questions about Cheney's stamina in a gruelling job might have given pause - he has had three heart attacks and had heart bypass surgery last year - but his cardiologist presented a clean bill of health. The new secretary has returned to skiing and mountain-climbing.

Although the Senate embraced him without hesitation, it will take the public some time to learn what kind of Pentagon chief he will make. Unlike Tower, he brings virtually no prior expertise in military affairs or well publicized stands on major defense issues.

To insiders, however, Dick Cheney is one of Washington's "old reliables" - a former White House chief of staff under president Gerald Ford, second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives and one of those traditional Republican conservatives whose hallmarks are anti-communism, suspicion of "big government" and devotion to free enterprise.

Then there is that affable style and dry outdoorsman's wit that helped grease his path through the confirmation process.

When he sat down to hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week, everyone was looking to clear the air of partisan tensions raised by the bitter clash between the Senate and the proud, bulldoglike Tower. A bit of self-deprecating humor from Cheney did the trick.

Introduced with the customary glowing praise by the senior senator of his home state, Alan Simpson, Cheney opened his remarks with a tale about how he had recently blundered into the wrong building in a small Wyoming town and found himself face to face with a woman cleaning her living room in her nightgown.

"I felt like an absolute fool," he said. "So as I left, I introduced myself to her as her U.S. senator, Alan Simpson."

The hearing room erupted in laughter. Everyone relaxed.

"Dick Cheney is a deep man, a thinker who is willing to compromise," one senior Senate aide told Reuters. "But that joke as much as anything tells you why people like him. He is as unpompous as they come."

On defense issues, Cheney conceded he has a lot of boning up to do. But he spelled out views on some major issues that require no technical expertise, such as the need for military spending cuts to help reduce federal budget deficits.

"I have no illusions (about the need for cuts)," he said. "It will very, very difficult. But I also will not shrink from my duty to tell the president and Congress when there is a conflict between the need for national security and a proposal to reduce funds."

He said he was skeptical of stated Soviet plans to make military cuts, including troop and tank reductions in Central Europe, and said the United States should not be lured into making similar cuts just to reciprocate.

"I think it's very important that we not fall into the trap of having to respond to the offer-of-the-week," he said.

He also warned against succumbing to pressures to give the armed forces fullscale police powers and responsibilities in the battle to stem the flow of drugs into the United States.

Cheney, who had been Wyoming's lone House member since 1978 with his election to the first of six terms, was not a member of any of Congress's military committees but did serve on the House Intelligence Committee and on a special panel that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987,

He first came to national attention as White House chief of staff under Ford in 1975 and 1976. But even in that glamorous post he was a relatively low-profile figure who never attracted much personal publicity.

Before being tapped to help Ford put the country back on track after the Watergate scandal that drove Richard Nixon out of office, Cheney had gained experience in a number of Washington jobs. He worked at the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969-70, as a White House staff assistant in 1971 and on the cost-of-living council in 1971-73.