WASHINGTON — Former Sen. John Danforth resurfaced Saturday night as a Republican vice presidential candidate, joining former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney on George W. Bush's short list. Cheney is the leading candidate, a highly placed Republican official said as the Texas governor neared his decision.

Danforth, his wife Sally, and Cheney — who also heads Bush's search team — met secretly with Bush for a get-to-know-you session in a Chicago hotel suite Tuesday, setting aside his oft-stated opposition to serving as vice president. Republican officials had assumed Danforth's reluctance disqualified him from consideration.

Danforth's name surfaced as Arizona Sen. John McCain's chances appeared to fade. Two Republican sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the House Republicans who wrote the Bush campaign to urge McCain's nomination had been told in advance that it was too late for such an effort. The word was relayed from Cheney.

Bush said he will make his decision this weekend and announce it this week, well in advance of the July 31 opening of the Republican convention in Philadelphia. Officials said Saturday that Bush had not made a final decision, although he appeared to be leaning toward Cheney.

Both Cheney and Danforth would give the GOP ticket stature and the Washington experience that Bush lacks. Solid conservatives, either candidate would help Bush shore up his base. Danforth has the advantage of living in a key battleground state, Missouri.

Those mentioned as possible candidates include Govs. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and George Pataki of New York; Rep. John Kasich of Ohio; and Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Bill Frist and Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

The Danforth meeting, first reported by ABC News, was notable because Bush is known to have had few such sessions with candidates. Danforth's wife has expressed reservations about the job, leading the former lawmaker to say in the past that he didn't want to be vice president. Party officials say Mrs. Danforth is now more open to the idea.

Shortly after the Chicago meeting began, Cheney left the room to allow Bush to meet alone with the Danforths. Bush was said to be impressed with the couple, though he has not known them long.

Danforth, 63, who retired from the Senate in 1995 after nine years in office, was appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno in September to oversee investigation of the federal government's actions during the siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993. He issued a report Friday that cleared Reno and all government agents of wrongdoing.

Asked why he was releasing his report when it was only 95 percent done, he said he thought it was important to clear Reno and others now. But he also suggested personal political considerations, too.

"In May an unexpected political possibility came up, and if there was any chance of that coming to pass, it would mean that I would have to step down as special counsel," he told reporters, but he refused to say whether completing his work meant he was now open to becoming Bush's running mate. "I'm not going to say anything more about politics."

In the Senate, Danforth was the chief advocate of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings. After leaving the Senate, he returned home to practice law in St. Louis.

Danforth, a former state auditor and attorney general, is a graduate of Princeton University and Yale's law and divinity schools. An heir to the Ralston-Purina fortune, he is an ordained Episcopal priest.

Cheney, a former Wyoming lawmaker and White House chief of staff, emerged as the leading candidate Friday after changing his registration from Texas to Wyoming to avoid a Constitutional hurdle if Bush were to pick him.

Cheney's emergence quieted speculation that McCain wanted a spot on the ticket. The timing left Republicans wondering whether Bush was using Cheney to divert attention from his vanquished rival.

Danforth's candidacy diverts attention from McCain even further.

Aides for McCain and Bush had long since suspected the Arizona senator had little chance of getting the job, though McCain told a mutual friend last week that he would be willing to serve.

Cheney has a history of heart trouble, and as a former member of President Bush's Cabinet, might undermine the younger Bush's efforts to stand apart from his father and be viewed as a fresh-faced Washington outsider.

"The fact that Cheney is in play this late in the process shows that Bush is looking for somebody with national stature," said Republican consultant Scott Reed. "The question he is wrestling with is: 'Do I go national, or do I look for a regional or state candidate?"'

The former defense chief, who has residences in Texas and Wyoming, spent Saturday in his suburban Washington home with his wife, prominent Republican Lynne Cheney, their daughter and her family.

After dinner, Cheney walked the family to their car. He refused to talk about the running mate search or his prospects.

"There's no more news here tonight," Cheney said.

His wife added, "There's a lid on. Go home."