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Cheney Increasing Visibility Before Fall Elections

From the baseball diamond to the speedway oval, Vice President Dick Cheney is turning up at lots of high-profile venues, increasing his visibility ahead of the fall election.

Saturday offered a double-dip in the all-important political state of Florida: seeing the space shuttle Discovery blast off and then catching a NASCAR race, complete with a visit with the drivers and their crews.

Cheney often does most of his work behind the scenes, but has taken on more public appearances this year. It's part of an all-hands-on-deck effort at the White House to improve the GOP's standing going into the November election with control of Congress at stake.

The events add to the list of memorable experiences for Cheney this year:

—throwing out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals home opener.

—touring a Harley-Davidson factory in Kansas City.

—visiting the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

In addition, he has spoken several times at military bases and politically important conventions.

Cheney has headlined about 70 Republican fundraisers during the current election cycle, raising more than $22 million.

Republicans are concerned that their control of Congress could be in jeopardy this fall, with Bush's leadership and the war in Iraq so unpopular among the public. Cheney is not particularly well liked among the general public — more than 40 percent of those surveyed routinely telling pollsters they have an unfavorable opinion of him — but he is more popular among the GOP faithful.

Cheney is an especially powerful vice president, with considerable influence on administration policy. But he has traditionally stayed out of the limelight and avoided many media interviews, except when it can help the GOP cause.

The vice president's aides even tried to extend exposure of Cheney's Florida trip beyond the traditional audience, inviting team from Sports Illustrated to join the White House media. He also took a team from Fox Sports and Motor Racing Network, which handles NASCAR's radio coverage.

Joining the vice president and his wife, Lynne, were three of their grandchildren: Kate, 12; Elizabeth 8; and Grace, 6. The five got an up-close view of the shuttle, about 1.5 miles away, when the motorcade took them through the restricted launch danger area within 90 minutes of the scheduled takeoff.

They also toured the hangar where Atlantis was being prepared for a scheduled launch in August. All five craned their necks to look at the bottom of the orbiter, which hung a few feet above them.

The no-touching rule given to the rest of Cheney's entourage clearly did not apply to him. He rapped one of the tires with his fist; no one objected.

More than 20 years ago, when Cheney was a congressman from Wyoming, he was at a shuttle launch. But the NASCAR race Saturday was a first for him.

The Pepsi 400 has become a popular event for national leaders. President Reagan was the commander in chief to attend a race when he went in 1984. Both President Bush and his father have been, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld attended last year.

The Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway is a particularly patriotic event because it is scheduled for the Independence Day weekend and draws a large military crowd.

The flight plan for Air Force II would take Cheney directly over the race track at 1,000 feet before the plane landed at the Daytona Beach airport. Cheney planned to speak during the pre-race ceremony.