In the nearly two weeks since Texas Gov. George W. Bush tapped Dick Cheney to be his running mate, a race has been on to define the man who hopes to be the next vice president of the United States.
The Republican Mr. Cheney was hardly an obscure choice, widely viewed as one of Washington's more experienced hands. Republicans and Democrats praised the former White House chief of staff, congressman and secretary of defense as a solid man of integrity — if not a terribly flashy presence on the stump.
Now the Democratic Party and the presidential campaign of Al Gore are pressing ahead with a risky gambit to remake the image of Cheney from that of a moderate-toned conservative into a man outside the mainstream, an uncompassionate conservative who votes against small children and for ""cop-killer"" bullets.
Last week, in the midst of the Republican National Convention — a time when the opposing party usually lies low — the Democrats aired ads in 17 battleground states criticizing certain Cheney congressional votes and trying to tar Bush with the same brush. Cheney himself has made the rounds of talk shows in his own defense and has been trying to place his votes in context.
So far, the Democrats haven't appeared to hit pay dirt. Most polls show the Cheney selection produced a positive bounce for Bush. A majority of the public sees Cheney as qualified to be president. And the Democrats run the risk of being viewed as unduly negative at a time when the public has said "enough" over negativity in politics. "So far, the image of Cheney as moderate and even-keeled trumps the image of him as a right-winger," independent pollster John Zogby told a Monitor breakfast Aug. 1.
But the fact is that, while Cheney is well-known in Washington circles, he's hardly a household name for the average voter, and there's still room to add flesh to first impressions.
On the issue of Cheney's congressional record, the Bush campaign complains that the Democrats are distorting selective cases out of the 2,000 votes he cast during his tenure in the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1989. Over the weekend, Cheney defended his vote against a ban on armor-piercing ammunition, saying that the rules of that vote did not allow any amendments on that bill, which he felt violated the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
On the issue of the Head Start early education program and other social programs he voted against, Cheney said those votes were taken at a time of large budget deficits, when the government couldn't afford additional spending. Now, he says, he would vote in favor of Head Start and for keeping the Department of Education.
In Philadelphia, GOP conventiongoers will have none of the Cheney-bashing and see the Wyomingan as a smart political pick — a conservative who will allow Bush to range more to the center as the Nov. 7 election approaches.
"It's a balancing act between the middle and the right," says Mike Hellon, a Republican National Committee man from Arizona. "We're going to get it right this year."
In Wyoming, people from both sides of the political aisle who know their former representative are eager to talk about Cheney the man. While Cheney is known as a rock-solid conservative, he is also a friend to the environment — an issue that looms large in a state where longtime dependence on cattle production, oil and natural gas development and forestry has left its economy in the doldrums.
Cheney's environmentalism was best illustrated in his leadership in pushing a wilderness bill through Congress that placed federal lands along the Rocky Mountain front in Wyoming off-limits to natural-resource extraction, including oil drilling, says Angus Thuermer, a local editor who covered Cheney when he served in Congress.
"He doesn't double talk or use euphemisms," says Thuermer.
Thuermer recalls in the late 1970s, when Cheney was in Congress, he once told the Bureau of Reclamation that its idea of flooding sensitive areas of Grand Teton National Park with a new dam was "a dumb idea." The proposal quickly died.
Friends of Cheney say his serious demeanor can be a springboard for a wry wit. A former top aide to Cheney when he was secretary of defense recalls the time an aide spilled a sensitive story to a reporter on the eve of a major arms-control meeting between President George Bush and the Soviets.
The president had planned to make a big splash with his announcement but found himself pre-empted. Cheney called his two aides into his office and said, "Well, guys, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the president of the United States is very ticked off. The good news is I only have to fire one of you."
Cheney didn't fire anyone but took full responsibility himself.
"It tells you something not only about his ability to have a sense of humor under pressure," the aide says, "but of an approach to dealing with people that builds intense loyalty among those around him."
It is that sense of loyalty that led former President Bush to suggest his son turn to Cheney to run his search for a running mate — and led the junior Bush to settle on Cheney himself.