Lynne Cheney -- brainy policy wonk, crusader against political correctness and talk show host who used to sign off from "Crossfire" with the line "From the right, and right on every issue" -- is gushing over her high school sweetheart.
"I've known Dick since he was 14 years old, and he was a good-looking 14-year-old, too!" the wife of the second most powerful man in the country confides to a crowd of 2,000 people, who break into guffaws. "When I first knew him, he was working at the Ben Franklin store in Casper, Wyoming. And his job was sweeping out the store."
The vice president's wife is wearing a crimson jacket that draws out the stripes in the giant American flag behind her. It's the color she wore on their first date in 1958, when, as she tells audiences on the campaign trail, her grandmother sewed her a strapless red crinoline dress for the occasion "with a million yards of ruffles on it." Now 63, Lynne Cheney credits the dress with getting her a second date with the boy who had moved to her home town in eighth grade and, in high school, would rather read a book on military history than drive to the local A&W Root Beer stand.
It gets mushier.
The war leader who declares at every campaign stop that it's only a matter of time before terrorists hit us again has been quietly standing downstage from his wife, with his hands clasped. He looks almost sheepish.
"It's true she's known me since I was 14, but she wouldn't go out with me until I was 17," Vice President Cheney, 63, says when it's his turn at the lectern, and the audience breaks into knowing laughs. "I often tell people that the reason we got married is because Dwight Eisenhower got elected president."
Cheney's father, who worked for the Agriculture Department's Soil Conservation Service, was transferred to Casper when the new president reorganized the government. "And that's where I met Lynne." The couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this fall, the vice president says, then theorizes that if Eisenhower hadn't won, she would have married somebody else.
"Awwww!" the crowd coos.
"And she said, 'Right, and now he'd be vice president of the United States!' " Dick Cheney says. "Every man here knows exactly what I mean."
The corny warm-up act moves quickly into a stump speech as dark as its opening refrains are light. Swing-state voters routinely hear the vice president use phrases like "To a terrorist who is committed to jihad, the whole notion of deterrence is meaningless" and "The ultimate threat we face today as a nation is the possibility that at some point one of these terrorist cells ends up in the middle of one of our cities with that kind of deadly capability and the lives of Americans put at risk . . . might be even hundreds of thousands."
But for a moment, forget that Armageddon might be around the corner. Put aside our fear that al Qaeda operatives will kill us with chemicals before blowing themselves up.
The nation's chief worrier about terrorism, it turns out, can fall in love.
Political wives can humanize their husbands. But Lynne Cheney does more, as she stands by her man at rallies and intimate roundtables in America's suburbs and rural corners. While Elizabeth Edwards, Teresa Heinz Kerry and Laura Bush crisscross the country solo, Lynne Cheney is almost always with her husband aboard Air Force Two.
"It's almost as though Lynne Cheney is the vice president's muse," says Juleanna Glover Weiss, who was the vice president's press secretary in 2001. "He almost levitates in his public appearances when she's around."
Levitation may be a little beyond someone whose public persona is a force of gravity, grounded in war plans, a former chairman of the controversial Halliburton energy services company who has retreated for much of his term to undisclosed locations and, critics say, secret meetings with polluters. But with Lynne Cheney on a stool next to him at town hall meetings where he takes questions from friendly audiences, he will indulge in a full smile, opening his mouth to show two full rows of teeth.
For Dick Cheney, this is buoyant.
"We have other surrogates," says Mary Matalin, one of the vice president's advisers. "But no one can do what Lynne does for him. He likes to have her around. He's happier. The events come off better."
Matalin denies that Lynne Cheney is trying to soften her husband's edges as she evokes a 1950s Americana of young love between the baton-twirling homecoming queen and the bookworm football captain at Natrona Valley High School.
"The press thinks it's purposeful" to have her on the campaign trail, Matalin says. "But we didn't think we had a problem. One thing you should never do with a strong personality is make it into something else. He's all business."
True, being all business carries weight with the Republican base. But Sen. John Edwards, his charismatic Democratic opponent, exudes such a life force that having his wife beside him would be sensory overload, too many candy apples.
Liz Cheney, who with her sister Mary is working on her father's reelection campaign, says he is neither bland nor secretive.
"He's not a big showman," she says. "He just doesn't pretend to do the backslapping stuff. His interest is always the substance."
This is why some voters find it refreshing when the couple sits side by side and gets personal. Lynne and Dick Cheney come across a lot like the voters they're wooing, people who married their high school sweethearts in simpler times, before al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction.
"I like the idea that she watched him grow up," says Darryl Hammond, a minister who came to hear Cheney speak in St. Joseph. Now 40, he met his wife in 11th grade.
The Cheneys have been stumping side by side since 1978, when Dick Cheney, fresh from his tour as President Gerald Ford's chief of staff, went home to Wyoming to run for his state's House seat. The couple, their two daughters, their dog and Dick Cheney's father piled into the family RV and drove from small town to small town.
That summer, at age 37, Cheney had the first of four heart attacks. He was knocked off the campaign trail for six weeks and Lynne campaigned for him.
Howard Dean defied convention last year when his wife declined to break off from her medical practice in Vermont to campaign for her husband during the Democratic presidential primaries. Dean said his career should not require her to be a political prop.
That's not Lynne Cheney. On the stump, the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities is the one to make the first policy pronouncement, telling crowds that one of the lessons her husband learned doing manual labor as a young man "is how important it is for hard-working people to get to keep as much of their paychecks as they can." That would be a plug for the tax cuts President Bush signed into law.
On education issues, the vice president defers to his wife, a former college professor with a doctorate in 19th-century English literature. "Lynne's really the expert in that," he told a dozen voters recently at a diner in Green Bay, Wis., when one asked about No Child Left Behind, Bush's signature education law.
While Laura Bush never mentions John Kerry by name, Lynne Cheney can go on the attack. On the grounds of a sausage factory in Sheboygan Falls, Wis., last month, the vice president was taking issue with Kerry's dour assessment of the economy. "Pardon?" he said, as his wife whispered in his ear. He turned to the audience. "Lynne says he spends too much time windsurfing."
While his voice never ventures out of a narrow bandwidth, her delivery is animated. Even when their banter turns up a spontaneous admission that the vice president would rather be doing just about anything but campaigning, it's funny. "Do you ever get tired of this?" she asked him at a town hall meeting in Cincinnati. "Yeah," he nodded.
As her husband took office four years ago, Lynne Cheney said she planned to write a book on education reform, a subject on which she advised George Bush when he was governor of Texas. But that project has been on the back burner, as she penned two children's books instead. The latest, "A Is for Abigail: An Almanac of Amazing American Women," was released last year. "When Washington Crossed the Delaware: A Wintertime Story for Young Patriots" is being published this month.
In the 2000 campaign, Lynne campaigned for the Bush-Cheney ticket on her own in between appearances with her husband. But the solo stumping is gone this year.
"We all know it's my father's last campaign," daughter Liz says. "If either one of them had to choose, they would rather campaign together."
When her mother came down with a cold last month and stayed in Washington, Liz filled in, introducing her father at an event in Reno, Nev.:
"My dad is of the American West," his daughter said. "He's got a firm handshake. He looks you in the eye. And his word is his bond." Then she left the stage.
"I'm delighted to be here with my daughter Liz, who is filling in for my wife, Lynne," Dick Cheney said. "Liz didn't do too bad today, did she?"
But the vice president was off his game. He spoke in even more of a monotone than usual. The half-closed smile returned. The laugh lines fell flat. He looked as though he couldn't wait for his muse to return.