tampabay.com

Cheney pays visit to Tampa

On his first trip to the area in more than a year, he rallies behind congressional candidate Gus Bilirakis and Israel.

By ROBIN STEIN
Published July 22, 2006


TAMPA - In his first public remarks on the burgeoning violence in Lebanon, Vice President Dick Cheney reaffirmed Friday U.S. support for Israeli military operations against Hezbollah.

Lebanon, Cheney said, is the newest front in the global war on terror.

"If anyone thinks the conflict is over or soon to be over, all they have to do is look at what's happening in the Middle East today," Cheney said at a fundraiser for congressional candidate Gus Bilirakis.

And the need to combat terrorism in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in Israel will be central to the Republicans' victory in the coming midterm elections, he said.

"As we make our case to the voters in this election, it's vital to keep issues of national security at the top of the agenda," Cheney told more than 200 Tampa Bay GOP leaders at the Wyndham Westshore Hotel.

The vice president made his first visit to Tampa Bay in more than a year to support the son of U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, an old friend from Cheney's days in Congress.

Good day all around

The incumbent's retirement has Democrats targeting his District 9 seat. It also has national Republican leaders like Cheney rallying behind Gus Bilirakis, a Republican state representative from Palm Harbor.

Lasting a little more than two hours, Cheney's visit was short but sweet for Gus Bilirakis, generating $225,000 for his campaign, said one of his staff members, Rob Whitney.

It was a good day for Cheney, too. A Gallup poll last month found only 34 percent of Republicans who would consider him an "acceptable" candidate for president in 2008, but he was greeted by protracted applause Friday.

"A welcome like that is almost enough to make me want to run again," he said.

"Almost."

It was one of a handful of jokes that, along with a summery mint green necktie, added a measure of levity to Cheney's stern remarks.

"This conflict is a long way from over," he said. "Either we are serious about fighting this war or we are not. And with George W. Bush leading this nation, we are serious. We will not let down our guard."

Reaction of opponents

Undermining the fight on terrorism, Cheney said, is the press, particularly the New York Times, which has run multiple articles detailing classified information despite administration protests.

"It's hard to defend the United States when news executives take it upon themselves to determine whether national security secrets deserve protection and routinely decide that they do not," Cheney said.

Meanwhile, Republicans were not the only ones roused by the vice president's visit.

Democratic candidate Phyllis Busansky said Cheney's visit "shows that Gus Bilirakis is a rubber stamp and they're spending an enormous amount of energy and money to make sure he wins."

Standing in a parking lot of a Shell station near the Wyndham Hotel, the former Hillsborough County commissioner pointed to gas prices and said, "We need a real energy policy."

"Cheney said two years ago that conservation is a private virtue," she said. "Conservation in this country is not a private virtue. It's a public virtue."

While she agrees with the administration's support of Israel, Busansky said "it is a shame that the architect of the policies that have led to an increase in Mideast violence and skyrocketing oil prices has chosen to come to Tampa rather than stay in Washington at such a critical time."

But, unlike in Utica, N.Y., and other communities where Cheney campaign appearances have drawn dozens of protesters, only a few pickets turned out in front of the Wyndham on Friday morning. They carried signs such as "Lebanese are dying, and Cheney is fundraising."

The disgruntlement is the same in Tampa, Busansky said, but the difference is the climate.

"Well, frankly, I wouldn't be out here in 90-degree weather, either," she said.