Loyal partner, lightning rod

Campaign: A major asset who brought credibility to the GOP ticket in 2000 carries a less-positive image now.

Vice President Dick Cheney

Election 2004 -- The Republican Convention

September 01, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- The end of a Dick Cheney stump speech can be jarring. The vice president speaks quietly for 25 minutes, sounding like a professor plodding through a lecture.

Then, as he politely thanks his audience, machines shoot confetti, music blares and balloons tumble from above. It's a sudden reminder that this is the campaign trail, not class time in a college auditorium.

Cheney has never been described as flashy or exuberant. In 2000, George W. Bush was not seeking such traits in a lieutenant. He picked Cheney as his running mate to allay doubts about his own foreign policy credentials. He wanted a Washington veteran who knows his way around the world.

Four years later, Bush has built his own record on the world stage: leading two wars and a drive against terrorism. No longer is he a novice governor in need of a vice president to fill in the blanks on his resume.

Pluses and minuses

Cheney, meanwhile, now has a less-positive image. He has had to fend off the notion that he helped Halliburton, the company he formerly led, win lucrative contracts to rebuild Iraq. He is seen as having enormous sway over Bush and as having nudged the president toward war in Iraq. His approval ratings barely top 30 percent. And he is less than charismatic on the campaign trail.

As Cheney addresses the Republican convention tonight, analysts are considering whether he is helping or hurting the president's re-election cause.

That is not entirely clear. What is clear, scholars and analysts say, is that Cheney isn't boosting Bush nearly as much as in 2000, when his record as a former congressman, White House aide and defense secretary lent credibility to the ticket.

"The resume value Cheney brings is much more of a negative now," said Joel Goldstein, a Saint Louis University law professor and leading scholar on the vice presidency. "Significant portions of the electorate see him as clearly influential on the administration's policy on Iraq and really the architect of it."

To some, Goldstein said, Cheney "personifies what people don't like about Bush -- the Iraq war, a penchant for secrecy and close ties to corporate America."

White House aides, who had to fend off rumors this year that Bush would dump Cheney and select another running mate, say the president values him as an indispensable adviser.

"The president has complete confidence in his judgment, experience and advice," said Suzy DeFrancis, deputy White House director of communications. "He values the vice president's advice, and that outweighs any other considerations."

Bush's decision to keep Cheney, analysts say, was in no small way one of political calculation. Despite a mostly negative public image, Cheney is popular with conservative Republicans and is likely to remain so -- even after Cheney, whose daughter is a lesbian, broke recently with Bush, saying he does not support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

"He is just fantastic," said Carol Artz, 67, a Republican from Pottsville, Pa., who just watched Cheney give a speech and said she views him as a leader with solid judgment.

Cheney is a consummate Washington insider, a respected former congressman who Bush often dispatches to Capitol Hill to try to win over wavering lawmakers when legislation is hanging in the balance.

Voters almost never consider the vice presidential candidate when voting. So, Bush likely saw little to gain by abandoning a partner who has been loyal and whose guidance he values.

"Bush decided it was just way too much trouble to let him go," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

In the meantime, Cheney has become hugely influential.

A former defense secretary who presided over the Persian Gulf war in 1991, Cheney also was a driving force behind the war in Iraq. He insisted that Saddam Hussein had illicit weapons, spoke often about ties between Iraq and al-Qaida and tried to persuade Bush to give up on diplomacy.

"Cheney could hurt Bush because he has this image as the puppet master at the White House, which suggests to voters that Bush is just not running things," Sabato said.

Cheney has long been a living political contrast. He is quiet, understated and prefers operating behind the scenes. Yet he has long commanded respect and wielded outsized power.

The Cheney resume

He grew up in Wyoming, met his wife, Lynne, in high school, briefly attended Yale University but dropped out after earning a reputation for partying. He returned to Wyoming, taking a job building power lines while keeping his draft deferment by attending community college.

At a time when the Vietnam-era military service of both Bush and John Kerry has been picked apart, Cheney's decision to seek deferments has received scant attention. Cheney's first child was born nine months after President Lyndon B. Johnson lifted a ban on drafting married men with no children.

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