In Vice President Cheney's final push before next Tuesday's election, talk of nuclear annihilation and escalating war rhetoric have blended with balloon drops, confetti cannons and the other trappings of modern campaigning with such ferocity that it is sometimes tough to tell just who the enemy is.
At an appearance in Pennsylvania after the final presidential debate, Cheney fired up the political faithful in a hotel ballroom by saying John F. Kerry is constitutionally unable to fight, let alone win, the war on terrorism. "It's just not in him," Cheney said to supporters, who were cheering even before he had gotten, as he likes to say, to the "good part."
"I'm delighted with where we are now, heading into the final home stretch of this campaign. We're going to take the fight to our adversaries, wherever they may be. We're going to carry Pennsylvania!" Cheney told the roaring crowd.
It was the kind of dual-use dig that has come to define Cheney's style and strategy in this campaign. Dangerous leaders must be defeated, whether Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian blamed for kidnappings, beheadings, car bombings and other attacks in Iraq, or Kerry in Massachusetts.
Vice presidential candidates often play the role of attack dog for their bosses, and Cheney has long been more aggressive and certain than President Bush in asserting controversial claims, such as the ties between al Qaeda and Iraq, and Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. During the campaign, Bush often dispatches his jabs with mocking humor and incredulous expressions; Cheney and his advisers, including wife Lynne -- who helps write many of his sharpest lines -- tend toward more sweeping pronouncements that can evoke alarm.
Cheney's mix of mass casualties and retail politics has been on full display on recent campaign stops, where grim terrorist warnings and attacks on his Democratic opponents have veered -- gleefully at times -- toward piling on.
One moment, the vice president will munch a pumpkin doughnut from a supporter, the next he'll warn that hundreds of thousands of Americans could be killed. He'll caution that extremists are trying to kill infidels -- "And we're the infidels," he says -- then schmooze with a local official about fly fishing.
His nuclear rhetoric has seeped into domestic matters. In a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, riff on the administration's troubles getting judges confirmed through Senate Democrats, Cheney said Republicans have considered procedural challenges designed to prevent nominations from being filibustered. "Some people call that . . . sort of the nuclear option," Cheney said, adding that such a move "would start an amazing battle on the floor of the Senate. Some of us think there's a certain appeal to that kind of an approach."
In appearance after appearance for more than a year and a half, Cheney has warned voters that the most important threat facing the United States is that an American city could be gassed, sickened or vaporized by an unconventional attack -- and that Kerry cannot be trusted to protect them.
Yesterday, Cheney told supporters in Minnesota: "The biggest threat we'll face today is . . . a group of these terrorists in one of our cities with the kind of deadly capability we're talking about."
On campaign stops from Charleston to Johnstown over the past two weeks, Cheney has repeated his warnings about the "ultimate threat" and has stepped up the rhetoric further by assailing Kerry's fitness to lead in highly personal, often evocative terms.
Cheney has reprised his controversial assertion that voters need to make the "right decision" on Nov. 2 to protect themselves from terrorism. And Saturday, he unearthed the threat of the Red Menace, saying that had Kerry been president "maybe the Soviet Union would still be in business." Cheney's comments have riled Democratic strategists. After the Soviet remark, Kerry campaign communications director Stephanie Cutter decried the "politics of fear and smear" and said it "sounds like Dick Cheney is coming unglued."
"Next thing you know, he'll be blaming John Kerry for losing the Alamo," she added.
But Cheney's advisers love the attention their man gets when he says things his opponents call outlandish. They say Cheney's decades of experience and expansive, unprecedented role as vice president have made him the perfect person to issue the toughest warnings about the dangers of terrorism and a Kerry presidency.
"It's like when you look back to Winston Churchill and appeasement. Everyone thought Winston Churchill was crackers," said Cheney adviser Mary Matalin, adding that Cheney is a realist. "He's just an American pragmatist when it comes to . . . how we use our might around the world," Matalin said. "If you think that's fear-mongering, you don't have a realistic view of the challenges we face."
Cheney's rhetoric has been foreshadowed by other candidates in earlier campaigns, Stanford University historian Barton Bernstein said. He noted that Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) blamed all major U.S. wars of the 20th century on the Democrats when he was running for vice president in 1976 on the ticket headed by Gerald Ford, and Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president, warned in 1952 that if the United States did not stop the communists in Korea, the fight would move to America's shores.
"The stuff this year is a little more raw and a little more personal," Bernstein said. "It's a bit more extreme."