KANSAS CITY, Mo., August 29 (AP) - Dick Cheney, promoting education, told a gathering of Christian athletes Tuesday that teaching children about character is as important as showing students how to read and write. "We want them to know right from wrong," Cheney said, touting George W. Bush's education plan that would beef up character education in public schools.

"Nothing is more important to learning than character." Running mate Cheney shared the podium with members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a national group that encourages students and coaches to practice Christian values and influence others to get involved with churches.

One student participant, Erica Garris, quoted scripture and told the gathering, "I stand here today professing God as my savoir."

Religion has been a recurring theme on the campaign trail lately with Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Cheney's counterpart on Al Gore's Democratic ticket, invoking God in several forums.

Cheney, asked about whether it was appropriate to mix religious and campaign themes, said the Republicans were simply emphasizing faith-based organizations that do good community work. "We can recognize organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes," he told reporters. "It doesn't require anyone to buy into a particular set of religious beliefs or philosophical concerns.

"We have a lot of groups out there, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, that do good work in the community."

At one point in his remarks, Cheney talked about the importance of teaching tolerance "as Christ taught," though he said he wasn't intending to "strike any religious themes."

Cheney's visit nonetheless may help the Republicans reclaim a topic that has traditionally been a signature theme for the party. "It's a well-chosen visit," said Dale Neumann, professor of political science at University of Missouri. "It will help re-establish coverage among the conservative right and show the Republican party as the party of Christian values."

The swing through Missouri, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida comes as Cheney has had to explain military budget cuts he oversaw during the Bush administration, which came up after he and Bush criticized President Clinton and Gore for cutting defense programs too much. Cheney will revisit the defense debate Wednesday during a visit to an international studies center in Atlanta.

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