OREGON CITY, Ore. -- Vice President Cheney likes to warm up a crowd by comparing himself to Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C), his telegenic opponent. "People keep telling me that Senator Edwards got picked for his good looks, his charm, his sex appeal and his great hair," he says. "I say to them, 'How do you think I got the job?' "
Not, apparently, for his sunny optimism.
The self-deprecation is one of the few laugh lines in a stump speech that is gloomy and serious -- deadly serious. Cheney, one of the Bush administration's leading voices in support of the invasion of Iraq, rallies Republicans on the campaign trail with visions of apocalypse.
"Today, we face an enemy every bit as bent on destroying us as were the Axis powers in World War II," he told supporters in swing counties from Iowa to New Mexico in the past week. "This is not an enemy we can reason with, or negotiate with, or appease. This is, to put it simply, an enemy that we must destroy." The crowds cheered, pumping their fists in the air.
While President Bush campaigns with an upbeat message that a second Bush administration will keep Americans safer, Cheney speaks like Darth Vader, as the ticket's voice of fear. The world changed on Sept. 11, 2001, and Americans should be afraid, he tells voters in flat, brooding tones. Terrorists could strike again at any moment.
The al Qaeda terrorist network "is trying to do everything they can . . . to get their hands on deadlier weapons, on chemical or biological agents, or perhaps, even a nuclear weapon if they could," Cheney said at a town hall meeting in this Portland, Ore., suburb on Friday, in opening remarks devoted entirely to national security. "And there's no doubt in anybody's mind -- there shouldn't be -- that if they ever acquire that kind of capability, that they will, in fact, use it because there's nothing to deter them from doing that. . . . We're at the top of the list."
The relentless focus on national security befits a personal style that may be short on charisma but is long on gravitas. The vice president does not waste time on the stump smiling. He dispatches a rope line in a quick minute or two. Unlike Edwards, he does not try to feel the pain of people who have lost their jobs.
He may be bland. But that is exactly why Republicans seem to like Cheney. "He's businesslike. He's knowledgeable," Glenn Van Valkenburg, a Cincinnati businessman, said after hearing Cheney speak in his city. "I mean, he's not trying to please you."
The vice president's approval ratings consistently lag behind the president's in polls. But polls also show terrorism to be the No. 1 issue on the minds of many voters this year.
Cheney, 63, a former defense secretary, seems to relish turning his tireless focus on terrorism to political advantage as he campaigns these days in intimate settings that suit him well -- town hall meetings of a few hundred supporters and roundtables with as few as a dozen. He sits on a stool without notes or a lectern, methodically explaining how Bush decided he had to go on the offensive against terrorists rather than sit back and wait for another attack.
Cheney tells audiences that taking down Saddam Hussein struck fear in other tyrants, including Libya's Moammar Gaddafi, who gave up his weapons program. He cites attacks around the world since the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hit -- Bali, Saudi Arabia, Madrid. And, in recent days, the siege by terrorists at a school in Beslan, Russia, that killed more than a hundred children has become, for Cheney, another reason to reelect the president: He will keep us safer.
Along the way, Cheney keeps cranking up his anti-Kerry message, first chiding the Democratic nominee for pledging to fight a "more sensitive" war on terrorism, then accusing him of adopting the antiwar rhetoric of his Democratic primary opponent, Howard Dean, and of changing his mind. Last week, Cheney stepped back from suggesting that a Kerry presidency would invite more terrorist attacks, but he rolled a new applause line into his speech after John F. Kerry's participation Wednesday on the Don Imus talk show.
"Even Don Imus, who has previously been favorably disposed to the Kerry candidacy, got all through after Kerry had left and said he had no idea what he'd said," Cheney told a group of doctors and teachers seated around him in a diner in Albuquerque. "I think a lot of people have that problem."
To critics, the Cheney message amounts to scare tactics.
"It was strictly scare tactics," Linda Yokum, a retired schoolteacher, said after hearing the vice president in Clarksburg, W.Va. A Republican, she said she is voting for Kerry because she "absolutely hated their going to war" in Iraq. "They've managed to portray it that they're going to destroy all the terrorists."
Kerry strategists say Cheney's message of fear crosses the line and will backfire. "It's 'Apocalypse Now,' " said Mark Kitchens, Kerry's deputy press secretary on national security issues. "[Rap singer] Sean "Puffy" Combs reportedly went to the Republican convention and gave Dick Cheney a T-shirt that said 'Vote or Die.' Cheney scratched out the 'Vote' and has been wearing it ever since."
National security gets top billing in every Cheney speech, with the economy, the cost of medical malpractice insurance premiums and the No Child Left Behind Act sometimes getting only passing reference. In Reno on Thursday, Cheney devoted 225 words of a 24-minute speech to the economy.
In making the case for the administration's decision to go to war, Cheney gives no ground on his long-held views that Hussein had ties to al Qaeda. No strong evidence of collaboration has been found. But, at every stop, he tells crowds that the Iraqi leader "gave safe harbor and sanctuary" to al Qaeda terrorists. The line draws roars of applause.
-- Lisa Rein