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Cheney Back Delivering the Grim Campaign Speech

Vice President Cheney, with Republican congressional candidate Vern Buchanan, singled out Democratic opposition last week at a fundraiser in Sarasota, Fla.
Vice President Cheney, with Republican congressional candidate Vern Buchanan, singled out Democratic opposition last week at a fundraiser in Sarasota, Fla. (By Steve Nesius -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006

MILWAUKEE -- Vice President Cheney sometimes starts speeches with a Ronald Reagan quotation about a "happy" nation needing "hope and faith." But not much happy talk follows. Not a lot of hope, either. He does, though, talk about the prospect of "mass death in the United States."

The not-so-happy warrior of the past two campaign cycles is back on the road delivering a grim message about danger, defeatism and the stakes of the coming election. If it is not a joyful exercise, it is at least a relentless one. Even with poll ratings lower than President Bush's, Cheney has become a more ubiquitous presence on the campaign trail than in the last midterm election.

He takes on not only the traditional vice presidential assignment of slicing up the opposition but also the Cassandra role of warning about dire threats to the nation's security. While others get distracted by Capitol Hill scandal, Cheney remains focused on the terrorists, who are, as he says in his stump speech, "still lethal, still desperately trying to hit us again." Bush, he says, is "protecting America" while the Democrats advocate "reckless" policies that add up to a "strategy of resignation and defeatism in the face of determined enemies."

But the message is carefully targeted. More than half of Cheney's fundraisers in this two-year cycle have been behind closed doors. Even at a lunchtime speech to Wisconsin Republican donors that was open to reporters, gubernatorial candidate Rep. Mark Green did not stand on stage, ensuring no pictures of the two together on the news, and some other Republican candidates did not attend at all.

That is okay with the White House, which at a perilous moment is counting on Cheney's under-the-radar campaign to rally the base, not the broader public. "The fact that he's willing to go after Democrats as harshly as the Democrats are going after the White House gets the party faithful going," said GOP strategist Glen Bolger.

It happens to inflame the Democratic faithful as well, and party strategists consider him a prime target for their own pitch to voters. "When he threatens Democrats and calls them names, it's something that really fires up our base," said John Lapp, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's independent expenditure program.

Cheney's fundraising visits often end up as fodder for opponents of those he tries to help. "Dick Cheney, Big Oil and Big Drug Companies Threw Curt Weldon a secret Washington thank you party," reads a Democratic brochure targeting the Republican Pennsylvania congressman. "And we got stuck with the bill."

The campaign comes at a pivotal moment for Cheney. His influence within the administration is widely perceived to be waning as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's star rises. The president in his second term has adopted a more diplomatic approach to problems such as Iran and North Korea than insiders believe would be to Cheney's liking. And as the 2008 presidential sweepstakes heat up, he will be the first vice president in a generation not to be seeking a promotion, leaving him on the sidelines of the most important national discussion.

But White House aides said it would be a mistake to underestimate Cheney even now. Although he is viewed favorably by just 34 percent of the public in the most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, he remains a champion of conservatives at a time when the right has been angry at Bush over issues such as deficit spending and immigration. So Cheney's mission is to bring home core Republican voters when they are needed most.

"He's a good carrier of the Republican message," said Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, noting that a Cheney visit to Grand Rapids last month raised between $750,000 and $1 million, a record for western Michigan. "He exudes a confidence. He makes you feel good and comfortable that he's vice president of the country."

Cheney's job is "a lot of volume, a lot of what we call McFundraisers," GOP lobbyist Ed Rogers said. Cheney has headlined 111 fundraisers so far in this two-year cycle, bringing in more than $39 million and already surpassing his total of 106 events for the entire 2002 cycle. Cheney is also regularly dispatched to conservative radio shows hosted by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. He takes the shots the White House does not want Bush to take or wants to test out first. When Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) was defeated by antiwar challenger Ned Lamont in a primary, Cheney called reporters to say the result would encourage "al-Qaeda types" who want "to break the will of the American people."

Out here on the hustings, Cheney does not come across as the most natural campaigner. A Cheney speech does not draw its audience to its feet. It plods through an argument that is more sobering than inspiring. He delivers even red-meat lines in a flat monotone, sounding more like a chief executive reporting to shareholders than a politician issuing a call to action.

The vice president, though, goes after Democrats by name in a way Bush rarely does, including Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.) and party Chairman Howard Dean. At a fundraiser in Sarasota, Fla., last week, he also singled out Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) and Reps. John Conyers (Mich.), Henry A. Waxman (Calif.) and Barney Frank (Mass.).

He talks mainly about terrorism and Iraq, arguing that U.S. withdrawals from Lebanon after the Marine barracks bombing in 1983 and from Somalia after the "Black Hawk Down" ambush in 1993 emboldened terrorists. "If we follow Congressman Murtha's advice and withdraw from Iraq the same way we withdrew from Beirut in 1983 and Somalia in 1993, all we will do is validate the al-Qaeda strategy and invite even more terrorist attacks," Cheney said in Milwaukee. In Houston last week, he accused Democrats of "apparently having lost their perspective concerning the nature of the enemy."

The crux of his pitch is what he calls the continuing "danger to civilization." Cheney, who warned in 2004 that the United States would be hit by terrorists if Democrat John F. Kerry was elected president, has not gone that far this time but does say that it "is not an accident" that the country has not suffered another attack since Sept. 11, 2001, giving Bush credit.

Democrats regularly punch back, suggesting Cheney is out of touch and desperate. "At a time when the Bush Administration finds itself increasingly isolated on Iraq, Vice President Cheney today went on the attack," Senate Democrats said in a statement last week. "Instead of ranting and raving on the campaign trail, Bush and Cheney should spend their time on the trail of Osama bin Laden."

Five years after Sept. 11, Cheney's message may be wearing. Some find it too limited. "To tell you the truth, I was a little disappointed," David Huibregtse, head of Wisconsin's Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay party members, said after a speech. "Too much on how great President Bush is doing and very little on why we should vote for the Republicans."

Yet it still resonates in certain quarters. Between fundraisers, Cheney addressed a Michigan National Guard rally, an ostensibly nonpartisan event that nonetheless provided helpful photos of him surrounded by soldiers in uniform.

Dick Szymanski, a manufacturing executive whose son serves in the Marines, applauded the vice president's message. "We respect him," Szymanski said. "It's a very, very hard job that he and the president have, that they've had handed to them. You can belittle people for the things they should or should not have done. But they're there trying to take care of the public."


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