Why Cheney, despite controversies, is a GOP mainstay

Vice President Cheney can expect a warm reception at the GOP convention Wednesday night, despite potential liabilities on everything from the war in Iraq to views on gay marriage that are out of sync with the party's conservative base.

Fiercely loyal and famously secretive, Cheney misses no occasion to turn the light from himself to President Bush. "You're looking at the oldest staffer in the West Wing," he told conservative activists in his first public address while in office.

In a town where self-promotion is epidemic, Cheney has become a virtual extension of the Bush presidency. As such, he's the most powerful vice president in US history - an influence that won't necessarily fade during a second Bush term.

"From Bush's point of view, one of the beauties of Mr. Cheney is that he has no interest in succeeding him," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.

Cheney is a rarity among vice presidents of the last half-century: a man with no apparent designs on the top job. His glass ceiling, largely imposed by diagnosed health problems, is also reassuring to potential presidential contenders in 2008, who can troll convention parties out of the shadow of a designated dauphin.

Ever since Alben Barkley, President Truman's No. 2, vice presidents have aimed to move up. For many, that meant tension with the president - or at least a drone of news reports on how the vice president was becoming his "own man."

Al Gore publicly calibrated his support for President Clinton with an eye to the 2000 race. By contrast, Mr. Cheney talks down any hint of daylight between himself and President Bush. Even when pushed to disagree with the White House line, as he did last week over gay marriage, Cheney makes clear that it's the president who calls the shots - and whom he serves.

"To a significant extent, Dick Cheney's political authority is the result of the fact that he is perceived as part of the framework of the Bush administration, not an appendage," says Timothy Walch, director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and editor of "At the President's Side: The Vice Presidency in the Twentieth Century."

The job grew in importance in the postwar era, but Cheney took on unprecedented responsibilities. After managing the Bush transition (a first for a No. 2 on the ticket), Cheney prepared the first Bush budget and directed the president's domestic agenda, including record tax cuts, on Capitol Hill.

Skewered by Bush critics as the power behind the throne, he has been a controversial, often polarizing, figure. A man with long ties to the energy industry, he headed a task force to overhaul the nation's energy policy. And he took a lead role in the promoting the case for the Iraq war. "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," he said on Aug. 27, 2002, before Congress took up the issue or the president announced his position on war.

Criticism over setbacks in Iraq helped drive up higher unfavorable ratings for Cheney. Some 54 percent of eligible voters rate his job performance only fair or poor, his highest negatives to date, according to a recent Harris poll.

Yet, despite all that, Cheney is seen as an asset on the campaign trail with key parts of the GOP base, especially economic conservatives and business groups who look to him as the administration's champion on tax cuts - the deeper the better. "The economic conservatives recognize him as a natural for them. For the social conservatives, he is not someone who has been a longtime part of their world," says presidential scholar Fred Greenstein.

Analysts say he could have an even more ambitious role in a second Bush administration. Cheney would probably line up replacements for exiting administration officials, who could include Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Others say Cheney could be tapped to head Social Security reform.

"One hallmark of this administration is the way the Cheney staff blends in and is complementary with the Bush staff. They are completely integrated and so much a part of a complementary team," says Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation.

Still, ongoing controversies over big war contracts and overcharges involving Halliburton, the Texas-based energy services company that Cheney directed until 2000, and a criminal probe into the leaked name of a CIA operative, could be ongoing distractions for the vice president.

To remain in the post, Cheney also has to help Bush win. Analysts say a vice presidential debate between Cheney and Democratic Sen. John Edwards will showcase sharply different styles. Says Mr. Walch: "You've never seen a greater study in contrast than Edwards, the boy evangelist, and Cheney, who is pure gravitas."

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