Cheney May Be a Mixed Blessing for Bush Team
He Rallies Base but Can Alienate Others
By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2004; Page A01
ALTOONA, Pa., July 4 -- Rumbling across the Rust Belt in a red, white and blue luxury bus, Vice President Cheney began his remarks at a series of Fourth of July rallies with a recitation of President Bush's record, then turned to bashing Sen. John F. Kerry as a slippery liberal.
"This is the good part of the speech," Cheney told a sweltering, blue-collar crowd Saturday in Parma, Ohio. At two stops in a row, Cheney accused Kerry of "amnesia" about his own record and described him as being "on the left, out of the mainstream, and out of touch with the conservative values of the heartland."
Cheney's relish for the attack makes him an effective tool for the campaign, allowing Bush's team to level tough charges that will get wide attention, while allowing the president to keep his distance. But Cheney is a blunt instrument in an age when politics is delicately choreographed. His willingness to speak his mind has continued to provoke controversies, strategists on both sides said.
At a time when Republicans are unified on nearly every other question, a number of well-known party members continue to talk privately about the possibility that Cheney will be replaced before the party's convention at the end of August. White House officials said there was no possibility that would occur. But one GOP official, exasperated with Cheney's continued talk about Iraq's supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, compared him to the Japanese guerrillas who filtered out of the jungle in the 1950s, not realizing World War II was over.
The three-state bus trip, Cheney's first major swing of this campaign, was a crucial chance for him to prove to Republicans that he is still an asset to the ticket, as he was in 2000 by lending experience and gravitas when Bush was a rookie on the national stage, and not the liability that Democrats and some pollsters say he has become because of diminished appeal and credibility.
White House officials said the trip was a signal that the question has been settled: Cheney is staying, and will be deployed not just to conservative strongholds, but to swing states as well -- to do what he does best, which is attack the opposition and talk tough about protecting the United States.
In the calculations that go with a presidential campaign, Bush's advisers have concluded that although Cheney's most important contribution is revving up conservative voters, he will not hurt Bush's effort to appeal to independents and could even help in reaching out to swing voters .
"Dick Cheney was made for this campaign," Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman said, saying the vice president has longtime credibility on the central issues of national security and the economy.
A White House aide said that independent voters in places such as Pennsylvania want "strong, serious, experienced people defending them from terrorist attacks around the world, and they know he is that."
"Suburban moms like that strong tough guy protecting their kids," the aide said. "The blue-collar worker who hears Dick Cheney give a straightforward, between-the-eyes answer says, 'Damn right,' whether it's [Cheney] sticking it to the enemy or it's him being honest about some foreign leaders and some international institutions not doing as much as they could."
A Cheney adviser who insisted on anonymity said the vice president's appeal to conservatives, along with the fact he has no intention of seeking the presidency in four years, has given him permanent job security with Bush.
"He is extraordinarily important to the base, and the base is extraordinarily important in this election," the adviser said. A White House official said Bush's aides are always worried about the right wing because of President George H.W. Bush's experience, and that with conservatives, replacing Cheney would be "worse than raising taxes" -- the mistake made by the elder Bush.
Republican frustration with Cheney increased recently when a White House effort to raise his profile, after years of near-invisibility, produced mixed results. Most notably, he used a four-letter word to insult Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) on the Senate floor on June 22. Cheney felt the senator had attacked his integrity. The vice president later expressed no regret, and told an interviewer that he "felt better afterwards."
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative group that is a crucial White House ally, said in a telephone interview that Cheney's outburst contributed to the coarsening of politics. Perkins said that the decision not to apologize is "telling of who he is as an individual -- if he's fine with it, that's who he is."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company