Dick Cheney came to Washington four years ago as the man who would bring a solid government and political background to an administration headed by a younger, less-experienced George W. Bush. Dick Cheney was Mr. Gravitas, the man who had served six terms in Congress, been White House chief of staff for one president, and Secretary of Defense for another.
But along the way, controversy built up around the sober, sometimes dour, Mr. Cheney. His approval ratings dropped from over 60 percent to just over 40 percent. Some Republicans - former US Senator Al D'Amato most prominently - suggested that Mr. Bush select a new running mate.
Had all that gravitas gradually become a harmful political weight for the president?
Apparently not. Bush's steady-as-she-goes approach to this campaign clearly includes Cheney. And at Wednesday night's Republican National Convention it was clear that he has key roles to play: Raising campaign money from the party faithful, and more critically, defining and attacking the record of Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry.
In his typically even tone, Cheney methodically pummelled Mr. Kerry's record.
"History has shown that a strong and purposeful America is vital to preserving freedom and keeping us safe yet time and again Senator Kerry has made the wrong call on national security," Cheney said. "Senator Kerry began his political career by saying he would like to see our troops deployed 'only at the directive of the United Nations.' ...Even in this post-9/11 period, Senator Kerry doesn't appear to understand how the world has changed. He talks about leading a 'more sensitive war on terror,' as though Al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side."
In counterpoint to Cheney's steady litany of criticisms, retiring conservative Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia raged and burned with his attacks on Kerry.
"For more than 20 years, on every one of the great issues of freedom and security, John Kerry has been more wrong, more weak and more wobbly than any other national figure," Sen. Miller thundered. "As a war protester, Kerry blamed our military. As a senator, he voted to weaken our military...Listing all the weapon systems that Senator Kerry tried his best to shut down sounds like an auctioneer selling off our national security."
Dick Cheney is in an historically unique position to assume the campaign role he has, says Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University who studies the presidency. Cheney is closely identified with the administration's most significant (and most controversial) policies - in particular the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq. He does not have one eye on the presidency himself, as just about any other choice would. And he rouses the Republican base as no other member of Bush's administration does.
"Particularly in an election that is very close, mobilizing the base is an important part of both party's strategies," says Mr. Goldstein. One gamble for the GOP, he adds, is that Cheney is just as likely to stimulate the Democratic base as well.
For example, in an e-mail fund-raising appeal just hours before Cheney's speech, the Kerry campaign called the vice president, "Halliburton's representative in the Bush White House." The reference is to the company Cheney once headed (and has a $33 million retirement package from) being awarded no-bid contracts in Iraq, plus allegations that Halliburton had overcharged the US government there.
Traditionally, the vice president is designated as chief attacker in a campaign. But when that individual also envisions himself in the White House one day, he may hold back for fear of appearing unpresidential.
"Vice president Cheney doesn't have that restraint, so it may make him feel freer to go after Senator Kerry," says Goldstein.
Cheney has already done so on the campaign trail, and in what likely will be seen as the most important part of his nomination acceptance speech Wednesday night, Cheney did not hesitate to keep the rhetorical blows coming.
"Senator Kerry denounces American action when other countries don't approve as if the whole object of our foreign policy were to please a few persistent critics," Cheney charged. "George W. Bush will never seek a permission slip to defend the American people."
"On Iraq, Senator Kerry has disagreed with many of his fellow Democrats," he said. "But Senator Kerry's liveliest disagreement is with himself. His back-and-forth reflects a habit of indecision, and sends a message of confusion."
Significantly, according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll, the slim slice of undecided voters "were overwhelmingly negative on the direction of the country, the impact of Bush's policies, and the decision to invade Iraq." This may be why, in defending the administration's decision to invade Iraq, Cheney Wednesday night referred only to a "gathering threat" and the "possibility" of weapons of mass destruction - not the absolute certainty he expressed before the war began.
Public interest in candidate debates typically focuses on the incumbent president and his challenger. This year, Cheney's single encounter with Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards is likely to be important, too.
If Cheney were matched in a separate race for vice president against Sen. Edwards, Cheney would lose by 10 points, according to a new CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll. The same poll shows Cheney with a favorable-unfavorable rating of 44-45 percent, the first time that Cheney does not have a higher favorable than unfavorable rating in a Gallup Poll.
"Not surprisingly, views of Cheney are sharply partisan, with Republicans generally viewing him positively and Democrats negatively," says Gallup News Service's Jeffrey Jones.
Four years after he first assumed the post, Vice President Cheney brings to this race the same strengths he did in 2000: Executive and congressional experience, a world view informed by that experience, steadiness, no personal political ambition, and loyalty to his boss.
But given the fact that he's been the most influential vice president in American history, and therefore is closely associated with the Bush administration's most controversial actions, those strengths may closely parallel the reasons why some voters in a very close race may hesitate to choose the GOP ticket.