By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
The vice president may be slipping in popularity, but political observers say he won't make or break the election.
MACON, Ga. - His approval rating has slipped for the past two years, and a recent poll shows fewer than half of Americans think President Bush should keep him on the ticket. He recently caused a stir by dropping the F-bomb on a Democratic senator from Vermont.
And last week, while attending a New York Yankees game, he was booed when his mug was flashed on the scoreboard.
But to the Republican faithful, like those gathered in Macon for a fundraiser with Cheney Thursday night, the vice president more than lives up to his presidential nickname: Big Time.
"Big," said Calder Clay, a Republican congressional candidate from Macon whose campaign account is $150,000 richer thanks to Cheney's visit. More than 200 people paid $1,000 to $2,000 per couple to see him and his wife, Lynne, and the buzz lingered long after the bar was shuttered and the roast beef picked clean. "He has a real presence about him. He's mild-mannered, and well-spoken, and a true asset to this party."
Even as Bush's opponents hope Cheney's growing unpopularity and his role in recent controversies will hamper the Republican ticket come November, the president's campaign and the Republican Party are pushing him to the forefront more than ever in an effort to rally the conservative voters.
He delivered a speech on the handover of power in Iraq at the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans before the Macon reception, and today he starts a two-day bus tour through three key swing states: Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. This election cycle alone, he has campaigned for Republican candidates in 35 congressional districts.
Advocates say Cheney's vast experience and bedrock conservatism cheers Republican conservatives like no one but the president. In those circles, as the folks in Macon will tell you, many of the Democrats' criticisms about him are considered assets.
Cheney's five-year stint as chief executive of Halliburton, which has a no-bid, multibillion-dollar government contract to rebuild Iraq? Practical business experience that will help the economy, they say. His secrecy? Discretion and loyalty to the president. Cheney's hawkishness, and his role in pushing the United States into war with Iraq? Proof that Cheney is looking out for America's safety.
"When you got a coyote in the yard, it's kind of good to have a hawk in the air, isn't?" said Ben Hinson, a major GOP fundraiser who attended Thursday's reception. "You need good eyes and sharp claws."
Nationally, Cheney's approval rating has fallen steadily, from the mid 60s in 2001 to about 40 percent this spring, polls show. According to a CBS/New York Times poll released last week, 21 percent of registered voters have a favorable view of him. In March, a Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters found that 47 percent of Americans thought Bush should keep him as a running mate.
But Karlyn Bowman, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute who studies politics and public opinion, said a vice president's popularity historically has had little effect on elections, and she doubts it will this time, either.
Other analysts agree, and echo the Bush campaign stance: Cheney's ability to energize the party's conservative base, invaluable to Bush's re-election, far outweighs any discomfort independents or swing voters may feel toward him.
"Are there people out there who say, "Gosh, I really can't decide between Bush and Kerry, but I really don't like Dick Cheney'?" asked Stuart Rothenberg, of the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.
He doubts it. When Cheney told U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a critic of the administration, to "go f--- yourself" during a photo session at the Senate last month, that only helped with conservatives, he said.
In many respects, Cheney plays the classic role of a vice president, defending the boss, rallying the base and leading attacks against Bush's Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Nor is it unusual for a vice president to generate controversy, or for the opposition to use him against the president. Consider the intemperate Spiro Agnew under Richard M. Nixon, "potatoe" Dan Quayle under the first President Bush and, to a lesser extent, "ozone man" Al Gore under Bill Clinton.
But Joel K. Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and author of The Modern American Vice-Presidency, said Cheney is unique because he wields more influence than any vice president in history. Gore would be second.
"Four years ago, nobody questioned that Clinton was the president," Goldstein said. "Now, in some circles, people say Cheney is really the guy who is running the country.
"While some of that is certainly overstated, I think they do have something of a chairman of the board, chief operating officer approach. Gore was never the chief operating officer. Cheney has been."
For the three young women waving posters like "Ask what your country can do for Halliburton" outside the Edgar H. Wilson Convention Center Thursday, protesting the vice president was as good as protesting the president. Maybe better.
"He is the puppet master," Carson Leegate said as she waved to passing cars.
"He's so greedy," added Kelsey Hannon.
"We think our elected officials should represent the people instead of the corporation," Shannon Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald and Hannon, who attend the University of Georgia, arrived four hours early with extra signs for any passersby who might join them. As they swatted gnats in the close, moist heat, a few drivers honked and waved, but most just passed in silence, or flashed a thumbs-down.
Only Leegate and another woman stopped. The president is popular here, and even Calder Clay's Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, who beat Clay last time by 1 percent, declined to comment on the visit.
Cheney's influence, like his role in crafting and selling the Bush agenda, dates to the days he was asked to find Bush's running mate, then found himself at the top of the list.
While he is deferential and credits the president for all successes, including the tax cuts and the ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan, he often presents a different side of the administration than the president.
Notably, Bush has acknowledged a lack of evidence linking former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida and the Sept. 11 attacks, but Cheney has left that possibility open.
He reasserted that link last month, days before the independent commission investigating the attacks reported it had found no strong connection, then did it again after the commission's report. Asked if he had information unavailable to the commission, Cheney said, "Probably."
In his speeches, he suggests Hussein posed a direct threat.
"Because we acted, he will never again brutalize the Iraqi people, never again support terrorists or pursue weapons of mass destruction, and never again threaten the United States of America," he said to applause in Macon.
On the stump, Cheney sounds like he looks: Anything but fiery, with a dry wit that draws chuckles, not guffaws. In Macon, after noting that Kerry has voted for tax increases 350 times over his career, he quipped, "At least the folks back in Massachusetts knew he was on the job."
Missing are the tenets of "compassionate conservatism" the president usually delivers, such as improving education and providing prescription drug benefits to seniors. Instead, Cheney feeds his audiences conservative chestnuts: Liability reform, an industry-friendly energy policy, making the tax cuts permanent, and a strong national defense.
As Wyoming's lone U.S. representative for 11 years, mostly during the Reagan years, he compiled one of the most conservative records in Congress, earning a perfect score from the American Conservative Union in 1988. He was one of only a few Republicans to vote against bans on armor-piercing bullets and on guns with plastic components that can pass airport metal detectors.
In 1988, he was one of a handful of House members who voted against a bill to allow federal employees to donate their vacation or sick leave to colleagues facing an illness or family emergency.
Democrats pointed this out when Bush chose him as a running mate, portraying him as a right winger out of step with America. It didn't stick. What did stick was the other image Cheney had cultivated first as a congressman, then as defense secretary under President Bush's father: an even-keeled, sagacious veteran who brought gravitas and experience to the GOP ticket.
"That's the tension," said Goldstein, the vice presidential scholar. "The wise man versus the right wing ideologue who is sort of the leader of this group in the administration that won't give up on Iraq, and sees connections with al Qaida that no one else sees, and is pushing for tax cuts for the wealthy."
A favorite pastime among Democrats in Washington these days is speculating that Bush will dump Cheney and tap former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani or another moderate Republican with broader appeal. Some at Thursday's reception in Macon had heard those rumors, too, but their unhappy reaction is why many analysts are virtually certain Cheney won't be going anywhere.
On the lapel of his blue-striped seersucker suit, Ben Hinson wore the gold star of a presidential Ranger, meaning he has raised at least $200,000 for Bush's re-election campaign. In April, he got to shoot skeet with Cheney at a Georgia hunting resort - "Best shot-gunner I've ever seen!" - and said the time he spent with Cheney has only validated his confidence.
Hinson and aides to Bush and Cheney say the president relies heavily on Cheney's counsel and that the two men enjoy a close, friendly relationship. At a private event Bush couldn't make, Hinson recalled Cheney joking that the president would have come if he'd been allowed to wear his flight suit.
"He is not bubbly and, quite candidly, not as warm as the president, but he is absolutely sincere," said Hinson, who owns a Macon ambulance service. "Looks you dead in the eye and tells the truth. . . . Dick Cheney says yes or no. Most politicians say yes or maybe."
- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.