Cheney's new role: liability


Election 2004: Bush's likely running mate brings a tarnished image to the presidential race.

March 12, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When George W. Bush picked Dick Cheney as his running mate in 2000, skeptics questioned the choice, seeing the monotoned Cheney as a longtime Washington operator with no charisma. Yet once in office, Cheney became an asset to Bush, a steady adviser with foreign policy know-how and influence on Capitol Hill.

Now, as Bush runs for re-election with Cheney again his No. 2, the vice president is bringing a fresh element to Bush's campaign: political baggage. Polls show Cheney's popularity has eroded. Fair or not, he's become a punching bag for critics who say Cheney lobbied Bush relentlessly to invade Iraq and was obsessed with toppling Saddam Hussein as soon as Bush arrived at the White House.

Meanwhile, the image of the company Cheney once led, Halliburton, has been tainted by allegations that it overcharged the federal government for re-building work in Iraq. Cheney has not been implicated in any wrongdoing. But the idea of an oil services company he once led winning a mammoth Iraq contract from the Bush administration, then engaging in questionable billing hasn't exactly raised Cheney's public standing. Yesterday, the investigation of Halliburton appeared only to be intensifying, after the Justice Department agreed to join the Pentagon's probe of the possible overcharges by the company.

In a poll of Americans by the National Annenberg Election Survey at the University of Pennsylvania in late February, Cheney's approval rating was at 33 percent, down from 43 percent in October. Even some Republicans cast doubts about him, with a quarter of those surveyed saying they would rather have someone else on the party's ticket in November.

Bush insists that Cheney will be his running mate again, and Republican insiders say the president has given no consideration to dropping him.

Some analysts say Bush is right to keep Cheney on board, no matter his public image. Cheney, they say, is an indispensable adviser. And if Bush's principal message to voters is that he provides consistent and steady leadership in perilous times, a shake-up at the top might hurt him more than a low public view of Cheney does.

"On one hand, here is perhaps the most influential vice president in history," said Joel Goldstein, a Saint Louis University law professor who is a leading scholar of the vice presidency. "On the other hand, he's brought all this political baggage."

Despite Cheney's sagging popularity, Goldstein said, dropping him from the ticket would divide the Republican Party. Cheney remains popular with a conservative base that is crucial to Bush's re-election.

"It is awfully hard to dump a vice president," the professor said. "Presidents of the past who have thought about it decided in the end that the cost of keeping them on the ticket was less than the cost of dropping them."

In a recent round of television interviews, Cheney was asked whether he had become a sponge for criticism directed at the White House.

"I think the fact that you become a lightning rod - it goes with the turf," he told MSNBC.

"If I thought I were a drag on the ticket, I would be the first to recommend to [Bush] that he needs to consider alternatives," the vice president said. "That's not been the case. He's decided he wants me to run again. He's a very artful persuader. He persuaded me in 2000 I should give up my private interest and sign on, and I've loved working for him and he's asked me to serve again. And I plan to do exactly that."

Cheney, who has suffered four heart attacks in the past 25 years, said that only if his health came to pose a serious problem would he consider not running with Bush in November.

"If a health question came up, or something like that, clearly," he said, adding that his "health has been good" and that "I've got a doctor with me all the time."

White House advisers say the vice president, who since taking office has spent days at a time working behind the scenes, will take a more active campaign role in coming weeks. Yesterday, he was in Maryland to headline a $200,000 fund-raiser for the Bush-Cheney campaign at a private residence in Potomac. Cheney also plans a major speech timed around the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. He will argue forcefully that the war was justified.

Mary Matalin, a senior adviser to the Bush campaign who was a former top aide to Cheney and still consults with him frequently, said a key reason why the vice president's poll numbers have fallen is that he has not aggressively defended himself against critics, having chosen to focus his energies elsewhere.

"He just doesn't care and does not work as most people do in this town, spending all their time burnishing their image," Matalin said. "So some of these things just hang out there."

Matalin added that a vice president's approval ratings are "not a vote determinant."

Some analysts said they agreed.

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