WASHINGTON – Dick Cheney, who thrives on secrecy while pulling the levers of power, is getting caught in the glare of an unwelcome spotlight.
Once viewed as a sage and mentor to President Bush, Cheney has approval ratings now that are as low as — or lower — than the president's. Recent national polls have put them both in the high 20s.
Bush's decision to spare former Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby from a 2 1/2-year prison sentence has focused new attention on the vice president and his possible role in the commutation.
Cheney's relentless advocacy of the Iraq war, his push to expand presidential authority and his hard-line rhetoric toward North Korea and Iran are raising concerns even among former loyalists now worried about the GOP's chances in 2008.
It seems Cheney fatigue is settling in some Republican circles.
Republican strategist Rich Galen, who worked for both Bush and Bush's father, said he is finding less interest or enthusiasm for Cheney. "Republicans have, in essence, moved on and focused on who to get behind in 2008," Galen said.
Cheney has drawn criticism and ridicule from Democrats for his close ties to Libby and for his contention — later modified — that his office is not "an entity within the executive branch."
Bush last week commuted Libby's sentence for his conviction of lying to investigators about his role in leaking the identity of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame. Plame's husband, retired diplomat Joseph Wilson, was a prominent critic of the administration's case for invading Iraq over weapons of mass destruction.
Bush said the sentence was excessive. The president kept the issue alive by saying he would not rule out an eventual full pardon for Libby.
Wilson said he would not be surprised if Cheney were "pulling the strings here, too" in sparing Libby prison time.
White House officials said they did not know exactly what role Cheney may have played in Bush's decision.
GOP strategist Mary Matalin, once Cheney's top political and public affairs assistant, suggested detractors are "score-settling or agenda-seeking."
"As the effectiveness of Bush-bashing winds down as a `vision' for their future, Cheney-bashing is their last breath as a substitute for principles upon which to forge an agenda to lead the country," she said.
Things have not gone well of late for the vice president. Courts have ruled against efforts he championed to broaden presidential authority and accord special treatment to suspected terrorists.
Cheney's position on Iran and North Korea has been tempered partly part by Bush, who recently authorized tentative diplomatic overtures to both countries. Bush also bowed to mounting bipartisan pressure and agreed to put the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic surveillance program under the auspices of a special court.
In addition, the White House confirmed it is considering closing the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Cheney long has said the facility is needed.
On top of that, the Supreme Court has reversed its own April decision and agreed to hear challenges by Guantanamo detainees in their fall term.
Is anyone listening to Cheney any more?
The vice president shuffled alone and in silence out of a luncheon of Republican senators last week amid defections on Iraq by GOP senators and as the administration's immigration overhaul went down to defeat.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, branded as "unfounded" Cheney's claim to extra protections for his office because of his constitutional powers to preside over the Senate and break ties.
"I don't think he handles too many documents in that capacity. He handles a gavel. That's about all he handles," Specter said in an interview.
Added Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah: "I don't know what he meant by that. I think he understands what his role is."
Still, Hatch said, Cheney continues to be valuable to the president. "Everybody knows he's a straight shooter. I know that he and the president work very closely together. And I think there's a good reason for it."
Democrats have not passed many opportunities to bash Cheney. "Who died and left him boss?" asked Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.
Cheney has seen his influence wane with rank-and-file Republicans and even conservatives, once his most ardent supporters. They are uneasy about Cheney's signing onto Bush's attempt to liberalize immigration law; spread democracy in the Middle East, which they deride as "nation building"; the amassing of record budget deficits; and even Cheney's support for certain gay rights (a daughter, Mary, is openly lesbian).
"We don't feel we're invested in Cheney, because he hasn't — in any way we're aware of — carried any of our water in these 6 1/2 years," conservative activist Richard Viguerie said.
Most of Cheney's hard-line colleagues are gone: Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.
More moderate players now command Bush's attention and oversee the national agenda: Robert Gates at the Pentagon, Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, Stephen Hadley as national security adviser.
Bush clearly still values Cheney's advice and the vice president is at Bush's side in major policy meetings.
"He must be an awfully bruised guy at this point. I think his star has set," said Thomas E. Cronin, a political science professor at Colorado College, where Cheney's wife, Lynne, and their daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, went to college.
"People who knew Cheney, whether they speak on or off the record, feel something changed with him. And they don't know when. Obviously, post-Watergate reforms of Congress and weakening the executive branch have affected him. He speaks a lot about that. Haliburton probably changed him. Maybe his (four) heart attacks changed him," Cronin said.
Cheney, 66, was chief of staff to Ford, represented Wyoming in Congress in the 1980s, was defense secretary under the first President Bush and chief executive officer of Haliburton, the oil-services company, in the 1990s.
He has a history of heart problems, including four heart attacks, quadruple bypass surgery, two artery-clearing angioplasties and an operation to implant a pacemaker-defibrillator.