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Inside Politics

Dick Cheney inspires loyalty, draws criticism

Brownstein: Democrats see 'Dick Cheney as a target'

By Bryan Long
CNN

THE MORNING GRIND
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CNN's Kelly Wallace on the Dick Cheney factor.

CNN's Bill Hemmer talks with Lynne Cheney.

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(CNN) -- You don't expect to find Vice President Dick Cheney eating at McDonald's.

Besides his well-documented health problems, which include four heart attacks, there's the perceived stuffiness to get around.

Cheney, a former defense secretary and congressman, is considered a policy wonk. He seems to relish his behind-the-scenes role in the Bush White House, ducking from cameras whenever possible. (Day 3: Cheney takes the RNC stage)

"Cheney, without a doubt, is this administration's best spokesperson on the issues," conservative commentator Armstrong Williams said. "They see him as an elder statesman, as someone who's older and mature, like a father figure."

His public image often seems to contrast that of rival vice presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards, who plays the part of small-town-boy-done-good. (Special report: America Votes 2004, the Republican convention)

But in the week leading up to the Republican National Convention, Cheney ate a grilled chicken salad under the golden arches in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. His grandchildren ate Happy Meals.

Earlier that day, Cheney bought a dozen ears of corn, nine red apples, some tomatoes and red peppers from a man at a Catawissa, Pennsylvania, farmers' market. He pulled a $10 bill from his own wallet to pay for the produce, which was deeply discounted by Ray Levan who said it was an "honor" to make the sale.

Then there was Cheney's trip to a Little League game. He said the Pledge of Allegiance and watched two innings of Texas playing North Carolina in the semi-finals of the league's World Series.

Just a day before, Cheney talked openly, and at length, on the issue of gay marriage. Significantly, he mentioned that one of his daughters, Mary, is openly gay.

"Freedom means freedom for everybody," he told the crowd in Davenport, Iowa. He noted that he still believes the issue is one of states' rights, but he supports Bush's call for a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages across the nation.

This is the softer side of Cheney and it's his attempt to appeal to a wider base of voters than just the conservatives who already support him.

There's little doubt that the right wing of the Republican Party believes in Cheney. In 2000, he was chosen, in part, to enhance the conservative half of Bush's compassionate catch-phrase.

But Cheney doesn't have a universal appeal. In fact, Cheney's popularity has dropped dramatically since he took office.

At one point -- May 2001 -- Cheney's approval rating was 60 percent. That was higher than Bush's approval rating at the time.

But just last month Cheney was viewed favorably by only 46 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll. And by last week, prior to the convention, Cheney had favorable ratings of 44 percent.

In early July Cheney entered the campaign spotlight. Until then, he rarely spoke in public and had not campaigned much outside of private fundraisers.

Within weeks of his debut there were newspaper headlines -- fueled by Democratic speculation -- questioning Cheney's political appeal and zest for the campaign trail. The headlines were a repeat of similar questions that had been raised by the media in February.

Bush stood by Cheney and confirmed time and again that Cheney would be on the ticket.

CNN political analyst Ron Brownstein said it's easy to see how Cheney emerged as a lightning rod for Democrats.

"They believe that they can make him the symbol of what Democrats, in particular, and perhaps swing voters don't like about the Bush administration," Brownstein said. "Whether it's the questions about the intelligence before the war, the relationship with Halliburton -- in a whole series of ways, I think they do see Dick Cheney as a target."

Halliburton's work in postwar Iraq -- much of which it won in a no-bid contract process -- has come under criticism and scrutiny because of the firm's ties to Cheney.

After serving as defense secretary in the first Bush administration, Cheney headed the company until joining the younger Bush's ticket as a vice presidential candidate. He left Halliburton with a $34 million retirement package.

Cheney is also perceived as one of the most adament hawks in the Bush administration.

While many diplomats were couching their public comments before the Iraqi war with caveats, Cheney's public pronouncements appeared much more certain.

While others pointed to the possibility of illegal chemical and biological weapons under Saddam Hussein's regime, Cheney went further to say he was certain Hussein had a nuclear weapons program.

So far, weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological or nuclear -- have not been found.

Democrats even like to point to Cheney's recent incident of using profanity on the Senate floor -- a practice that by tradition is forbidden.

Cheney's convention speech, his October 5 debate with Edwards, and the next two months of campaign stops will serve to prove whether his liabilities outweigh his assets.

Until November 2, the scrutiny will continue -- no matter how many ballparks, farmers' markets and McDonald's restaurants Cheney visits.


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