SHEBOYGAN FALLS, Wis. – Lynne Cheney (search) smiles, nods and applauds. Sitting on a stool beside her husband, she shows none of the fire that made her a leading conservative in her own right. She is the adoring wife, the woman who knew Vice President Dick Cheney (search) when he was a teenager sweeping out the Ben Franklin store.
Mrs. Cheney, campaigning across the country for another four years as second lady, is downright warm. And she helps the vice president look a little warmer too.
"I get to introduce Dick because I've known him for so long," she says at nearly every campaign stop. "I have known Dick Cheney since he was 14 years old."
Cheney typically responds: "That's true. But she wouldn't go out with me until she was 17."
It all paints a portrait of high school sweethearts, together ever since. And strategists for both parties say it's a clear attempt to soften the image of a man who cuts a divisive and hard-edged public figure.
"He's been, in so many ways, made to sound like a harsh person, and she certainly reminds people of a broader perspective," said Sheila Tate, press secretary to then-first lady Nancy Reagan.
Cheney's popularity is at an all-time low, with the portion of Americans who view him unfavorably more than doubling over the past four years. He would lose a head-to-head matchup with Democratic rival John Edwards by nearly 20 percentage points, according to a Newsweek poll this summer.
Detractors see the vice president as a dark force, pulling President Bush to the political right, pushing the nation into war with Iraq, holding secret meetings with energy polluters. They fault him for wrongly implying a connection between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And they are disturbed by his connections to Halliburton, the energy services company he once ran that is now profiting from the Iraq war.
"They realize that his image is pretty disastrous, so when you have a disastrous image, who do you call in for the rescue squad? That's the spouse," said Paul Costello, who was press secretary to first lady Rosalynn Carter and would-be first lady Kitty Dukakis.
Campaign officials, though, insist that Mrs. Cheney is there simply because the vice president works better, and is happier, with his wife of 40 years by his side.
"It's a lonely, hard thing to do out there," said Cheney aide Mary Matalin. "She makes him laugh, and he makes her laugh."
While the wives of the other three major-party candidates travel the country on their own, increasing the total number of visits the campaigns can make to important states, Lynne Cheney is nearly always on her husband's plane. Their two daughters also often travel with them, as do the grandchildren.
Mrs. Cheney plays a role that no one else can fill, Matalin said. She helps him craft his message, keeping up with unfolding news and often writing new lines on the fly.
Occasionally, her influence is apparent. In Sheboygan Falls, the vice president was criticizing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry for deriding the state of the economy. "Pardon?" he said, as Mrs. Cheney whispered to him. "Yes, Lynne says he spends too much time windsurfing."
The jab got a big laugh, and the next day, Cheney added it to his remarks.
The vice president often addresses audiences as part of a "town hall" meeting, where he delivers his stump speech from a stool, seated next to Mrs. Cheney, and then takes questions from the friendly audience. Mrs. Cheney holds her own microphone and nods approval at nearly everything he says, but rarely speaks after introducing him.
It's an odd role for Mrs. Cheney, say those who have observed her over the years. An education expert, she railed against multiculturalism in schools. She chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities and was a magazine editor.
But after her husband took office in 2001, she toned down her public comments, wrote children's books and mostly stayed away from issues.
"She plays the smiling Stepford political wife, which is so opposite from what she is," said Costello. "It's quasi an embarrassment, and I say that because she's not the little wife. She's a brilliant woman."
Mrs. Cheney took questions on various topics during an online chat last week, including one about whether she might run for office herself.
"I have thought on occasion of running for office," she responded, "but lately I've been thinking I'd rather be a campaign manager — maybe for one of my daughters or even one of my grandchildren."