Point man Cheney viewed as liability

He remains powerful figure, however, as Bush struggles through difficult period


WASHINGTON -- To put more sting into a new commercial attacking President Bush over the war in Iraq, producers made a last-minute change, adding footage that showed Bush with Vice President Dick Cheney.

The edit was prompted by Cheney's dismal approval ratings in public opinion polls, said Tom Matzzie of MoveOn.org, the anti-war group that is running the TV ad over Thanksgiving weekend. He called Cheney, the most influential figure in Bush's inner circle, "as unpopular as a comic book supervillain."

While Bush struggles through one of the most difficult periods of his presidency, Cheney is increasingly being portrayed as a liability, someone associated with the administration's most divisive issues, including its use of disputed intelligence to justify the war, its policy on torture and its harsh criticism of those who question Bush.

Nonetheless, Cheney is dispatched as often as ever to argue for Bush's agenda and to defend his policies. He remains one of the most powerful figures in the White House, beloved by the conservative Republican base and with a fundraising prowess virtually unrivaled in his party.

Conservative activist Grover Norquist drew upon a different comic book analogy to describe Cheney: The vice president has "stepped out and, like Superman, put his hand out in front of a speeding train for this White House, which is the assertion that we've been lied into war."

Cheney has taken a leading role in defending the war in recent days, drawing headlines and criticism for his denunciations of Democrats who have hammered Bush with claims that the administration twisted intelligence to persuade Congress and the public to support the invasion of Iraq.

But Cheney's position as a trusted hand, especially on defense matters, has been called into question, with public doubts growing about the war and the Bush administration's use of now-discredited intelligence to build a case for invading Iraq.

Cheney's early unequivocal charges that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons have been discredited, along with his unqualified predictions about the conflict, including one he made in June that the insurgency was in its "last throes."

Democrats have felt particularly free to go after Cheney since the indictment last month of his former top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., on charges that he tried to derail an investigation into whether White House officials deliberately unmasked a covert CIA agent whose husband had questioned the claims used to justify the war.

Libby's indictment placed a stain on Cheney's office, alleging that top aides there led an effort to undercut a retired diplomat, who had questioned Bush's prewar claims, by revealing that his wife worked for the CIA. The charges were a reminder that Cheney had a strong hand in building the case for the war.

"It is hard to name a government official with less credibility on Iraq" than Cheney, Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said recently.

Bush's trustworthiness ratings have declined in recent weeks as Democrats have stepped up their charges about prewar intelligence, but polls show that Cheney's are far worse. A Newsweek poll conducted this month found that 29 percent regard Cheney as "honest and ethical," compared with 42 percent for Bush. A CBS poll found that 19 percent had a favorable view of Cheney.

Cheney "used to be pretty effective in explaining and defending the administration's policies, because he could do it in a more articulate and persuasive way than the president. His ability to perform that role has been badly compromised recently," said Joel K. Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University who specializes in the vice presidency.

The shift, Goldstein said, has been brought about "both by his plummeting approval ratings and by the fact that he's so closely identified with the most controversial and unpopular aspects of the Bush administration."

Cheney's allies vigorously deny any suggestion that he has lost influence or that his role has changed. Jennifer Mayfield, a spokeswoman for Cheney, said he is doing what he has always done for Bush. He "continues to maintain an active schedule promoting the president's key principles that are important to the American people," Mayfield said.

Still, with Bush's popularity sagging, Cheney's task has placed him in the center of tough fights recently, sometimes within his own party.

It was Cheney who was dispatched to Capitol Hill this month to lobby senators to relax a ban on torturing prisoners in U.S. custody to give the CIA leeway in cases when it is seeking to prevent an attack. Most Republicans broke with the White House on the issue and supported the ban - a relative rarity for a former lawmaker who wields substantial influence on Capitol Hill - and some criticized Cheney publicly for the stance. Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, called it "a terrible mistake."

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