WASHINGTON – Vice President Dick Cheney (search), enormously popular with conservatives, will be key to turning out the Republican base this November. But campaign officials say they will use Cheney to persuade undecided voters as well.
Democrats delight in the prospect, saying the vice president is so divisive that they hope swing voters hear his name again and again. Even some delegates to the GOP convention fear that Cheney's personal style and his reputation as a resolute conservative will turn these voters off.
The Bush campaign replies that Cheney has the stature and experience to discuss national security (search), a central issue in this campaign, and that voters know he could step seamlessly into the Oval Office if needed.
"We're not limiting him," said Bush strategist Matthew Dowd. "He's respected. Whether or not some Democrats like him or dislike him, he's respected."
He took a prime role at the Republican National Convention (search), kicking off the event at an Ellis Island rally, attending festivities in the hall each night and delivering a searing indictment of Democrat John Kerry (search) in his own nationally televised speech.
Over the next two months, Cheney plans to travel as many as five days each week to battleground states. Sometimes he will go to conservative areas where President Bush runs strong, and sometimes to areas where the race is tighter, Dowd said.
Bush and Cheney will travel separately — for security reasons, the campaign says. And planners will make sure they do not overlap their visits to an area, to maximize crowds and local media coverage. Cheney will visit some remote areas where airports cannot accommodate Air Force One.
Expect more "town hall meetings," where invited guests get to ask Cheney questions. "That's a particularly good venue for him, and we think it's a very good approach to swing votes," chief Bush strategist Karl Rove said.
And while people attending Cheney events tend to be loyalists, aides say, what matters is the local press coverage of the event, which reaches many more voters.
Wherever he travels, Cheney will continue to make the case that Bush is a strong leader in fighting terrorism, and he will continue to assail Kerry's record. He'll also keep raising money, both for the Republican Party and GOP congressional candidates.
But unlike Kerry's running mate, John Edwards (search), Cheney has yet to appear in any of Bush's television ads, which reach the largest numbers of potential voters, and there are no plans to put him in one.
Dowd says it's a sign of Kerry's weakness that the Democrats are showcasing Edwards in their ads, but the fact remains: Edwards is much more popular than Cheney. Clear majorities say they would vote for Edwards if the election was for vice president alone — which, Republicans note, it is not.
Polling last week found Cheney's popularity at an all-time low, with the portion of Americans who view him unfavorably more than doubling during the past four years.
"Dick Cheney is emblematic of what a lot of people don't like about this administration," said Kerry spokesman Phil Singer. If the Bush campaign thinks he can help them with swing voters, Singer said, "good luck."
Cheney's been a magnet for criticism, with detractors accusing him of pushing the country into war with Iraq, holding secret meetings with polluters and backing unaffordable tax cuts that mostly aid the wealthy. He was accused of conflict of interest after Halliburton Co. (search), which he once led, won no-bid contracts in Iraq. He cursed a senator on the Senate floor, later refusing to apologize and even remarking, "I felt better after I said it."
None of this seems to bother Cheney, who dismisses the criticism as coming with the job.
Still, even some of the most loyal Republicans — delegates to the national convention — say it would be best to send the vice president to safe territory.
"He is more (appealing) to the base, more to the strong conservative base," said delegate Janet Creighton, mayor of Canton, Ohio, a classic swing town in a swing state.
"He's a very forceful, firm individual," Creighton said. "He's not someone who appears warm and fuzzy. There are people not attracted to him as an individual."
Delegate Dennis Tooley of Redmond, Ore., would also like to see Cheney used to turn out likely Republican voters.
"He's calm and collected and doesn't excite some people," he said. He'd prefer that someone such as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice address the undecideds. "People tend to listen more to her than someone like Dick Cheney."
Other delegates are happy with the campaign's strategy.
His strength is talking about national security, said Michelle Colbert of Steelville, Mo. "I think the war on terror is the main issue for independent voters as well."
Similarly, asked what parts of Iowa he would send Cheney to, Leon Mosely of Waterloo said simply: "All of them."