ELKO, Nev. -- Vice President Cheney had already alleged that Sen. John F. Kerry was in denial about the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and was opposed to fighting the war on terrorism when he turned to a years-old proposal by the Massachusetts Democrat to cut the intelligence budget.
"Not even Senator Kerry -- excuse me -- not even Senator Kennedy would vote for it," Cheney said to laughter from the crowd, which was heavy on cowboy hats and scuffed, muddy boots. He drew applause when he added, "Sometimes I get them confused."
The caustic dig, which Cheney played as an ad lib, was part of the vice president's carefully honed road show, which is playing constantly in the smaller areas of the nation's swing states. Elko, a city of 17,000 in sparsely populated northeastern Nevada, is so remote that the nearest major airports are three or four hours away.
But it is prime turf for Cheney, who was greeted by signs such as "Bush-Cheney -- How The West Was Won" and "Cowboy Up, America!" Natives list the top three local industries as mining, casinos and Wal-Mart.
The formerly reclusive vice president, who after serving six terms in Congress and in three previous administrations is the quintessential Washington insider, is stumping tirelessly in an effort to win what he calls his last campaign. Cheney has even taken to wearing his idea of casual -- blue blazer, pressed khakis and no tie.
One longtime Cheney friend said the vice president is determined to prove he is an asset to the ticket, even though his approval ratings in polls consistently lag behind the president's. Democrats contend that Cheney is a huge asset to their ticket, as an embodiment of this White House's coziness with business and the administration's penchant for secrecy.
Cheney, who was so reluctant to press the flesh at the start of the 2000 race that he had to be coaxed to engage in the usual after-speech handshaking along the rope line, has raised $15.4 million at 45 receptions for the Bush-Cheney campaign and $5.6 million at 14 events for the Republican National Committee. He has spoken at a passel of Bush-Cheney rallies in swing states and has headlined 63 fundraisers for the party's House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates.
Jim Jordan of the labor-backed political spending group America Coming Together, said opinions about Bush are so strong that Cheney does not change many voters' minds but does energize Democrats. Halliburton Co., which Cheney headed before joining Bush's ticket in 2000, has become the biggest U.S.-paid contractor in Iraq, and Jordan said voters view the firm as "a shorthand for corporate inside dealing and the rich making out at the expense of the rest of us."
A Washington Post-ABC News poll in late July put Bush's approval rating at 54 and Cheney's 11 points back at 43, although Bush-Cheney officials pointed gleefully to several polls that gave Cheney a higher approval rating than Kerry.
Cheney has vastly surpassed the usual clout and access of a vice president for two major reasons: He had long federal experience and Bush had none when he took office after two terms as Texas governor, and Bush trusts Cheney implicitly because he does not plan to run for office again and so is not viewed as a rival or someone with an agenda of his own.
At 63, Richard B. Cheney is just five years older than Bush, but his history of heart trouble has remained a staple of Washington buzz, along with his habit of working after Sept. 11 in what his staff called a "secure, undisclosed location." He was White House chief of staff under President Gerald R. Ford, served as Wyoming's lone House member and was defense secretary under Bush's father during the Persian Gulf War.
Austin Ranney, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley who met Cheney when he was a graduate student at the University of Wyoming in the late 1960s, said he is "at his best with small groups of peers, debating policy options."
"He's not sunny, hail fellow well-met," Ranney said. "But he's a loyal soldier, and a good part of the case against George Bush is the Iraq war and how we got into it. Cheney's heart is in it so deeply that he may be able to defend it more effectively than George Bush."
The front cabin of Air Force Two has a valedictory feel these days, with Cheney often accompanied by one of his two daughters, Mary Cheney, who is the campaign's director of vice presidential operations. His other daughter, Liz Cheney, a former Middle East official at the State Department, also has joined him on the road.
Aides have tried to show Cheney as personable by having him appear with his grandchildren, and by having his wife, Lynne Cheney, introduce him. She was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1993 and a regular on CNN's "Crossfire," and she now writes children's history books.
The vice president's high school sweetheart tells how she met him when he was 14 years old, and portrays him as an up-by-the-bootstraps entrepreneur. "When I first knew him, his after-school job was sweeping out the Ben Franklin store," Lynne Cheney told a crowd in Davenport, Iowa, last week. ". . . I knew when he was digging ditches out at the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo Grounds. And I knew him when he was loading bentonite, hundred-pound bags of bentonite, onto railroad cars. And I knew him when he was building power line across the West to help pay his way through school."
The vice president has been mostly known for his sharp, although usually humor-laced, attacks on Kerry. He is trying to be more spontaneous, stepping out from behind flag-flanked lecterns and answering questions at town hall meetings. He caused a stir among liberals and conservatives after an appearance last week in Davenport, where he spelled out his differences with Bush over a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. Cheney, whose overall political philosophy is described by friends as Western minimalist, thinks the issue should be left to states, and he noted publicly for the first time that daughter Mary is gay.
Cheney casts such a large shadow over the White House that many of the fans who were interviewed in Elko compared him with Kerry, without mentioning the Democrat's running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.). "The best thing about Reagan was that we always knew where he was going to be on every issue," said Joe Dahl, a rancher from Fallon, Nev. "Dick Cheney is a lot like that."