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Defense Expert Cheney Plots His Own

Tactics: Under attack by Democrats, the vice presidential candidate will make a critical speech to delegates tonight.


PHILADELPHIA — In the last week, there have been two Dick Cheneys wrestling for preeminence.

One image--favored by Republicans--is the coolly efficient, calmly reassuring veteran of Operation Desert Storm. The other--promoted by Democrats--is the extremist ideologue who voted against funding for Head Start preschool programs and freedom for Nelson Mandela.

Tonight voters will have a chance to take their own measure, when Cheney is formally installed as the Republican Party's vice presidential nominee. His 30-minute acceptance speech will be his most important exposure to the American public since the days of his deft performance as Defense secretary and press briefer during the Persian Gulf War.

Politically, his goal tonight is simple. As Charles Cook, an independent campaign analyst, put it: "He's got to show he's not some kind of nut."

Just days ago, George W. Bush invited Cheney onto his ticket as the living embodiment of the experience and gravitas some find lacking at the top of the ticket. Bush remains convinced Cheney is all he believes him to be and just as certain that his political partner's reassuring image ultimately will prevail. But Democrats have been relentless in their Jekyll-and-Hyde portrait of the former Wyoming congressman, suggesting his moderate manner masks a radical right-wing past. Their aggressive attacks have thrown the Bush campaign off stride for the first time in months.

On Tuesday, aides were still wrestling with the question of how vigorously Cheney should defend his congressional record in a speech traditionally devoted to extolling the top of the ticket. The prevailing sentiment leaned toward tradition, the assumption being the Democratic attacks would ultimately hurt Vice President Al Gore, the party's presumptive nominee.

Former Rep. Susan Molinari, a New York Republican, expressed that sentiment at a luncheon Cheney attended Tuesday in honor of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "The timing of trying to cast such a negative pall during a party's political convention can only backfire, particularly when Republicans are trying to give voters what they say they want, which is less partisan bickering."

But Democrats showed no sign of letting up. This week, they opened a new front, mocking Cheney for avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War. The former Pentagon chief received five draft deferments during the war, four as a student and one as a new father.

Over the weekend, Cheney backed away from some of his more controversial votes in Congress, saying he now would vote to ban so-called cop-killer bullets and to support Head Start. But he stuck by his 1986 vote opposing a resolution to free South Africa's Mandela, then a political prisoner.

After making a string of appearances on the Sunday TV news programs, Cheney has been seen but scarcely heard in Philadelphia. Tuesday morning he met with former President Ford, who gave him his big break in politics by naming him White House chief of staff in 1975, when Cheney was just 34 years old. Later, Cheney spoke at the luncheon for Hastert.

"It's not an assignment that I volunteered for," the preternaturally unflappable Cheney said of his selection by Bush. "As so many of you know, I said no a few times before I finally said yes."

Cheney, who spoke for just five minutes, also reprised what has become a recurring theme, an allusion to President Clinton's White House sex scandal. "Most of all," Cheney concluded, "we're going to give to our children and our grandchildren a government that they can be proud of once again."

The former lawmaker avoided talking about the Democratic attacks on his congressional record, and analysts suggested that would be the best tack for tonight as well.

"I don't think the platform of the convention is the time to do that," said Stuart Elway, an opinion pollster in Washington state, where Democrats are running an ad attacking Cheney's votes against Head Start, a school lunch program and the Clean Water Act. "It's giving the other side the ball, playing defense, lending credibility to their charges. I think a convention, in particular, is a time for broad vision."

But Ed Sarpolus, a pollster in Michigan, said Cheney must implicitly answer at least one of the criticisms leveled by Democrats: the notion that he's a throwback to a Republican Party rooted in the past. Michigan is a swing state filled with the kind of independent voters and conservative Democrats both campaigns are trying to win over.

"He's being accused of being the Old Guard, which means old ideas," Sarpolus said. "He needs to begin to set the groundwork of new ideas, why [Republicans] are better. All Republicans have been saying is, 'We'll give you the same economy Democrats gave you. We're as caring as Democrats.' They've got to say how they can make things even better."

Dick Bennett, a pollster in New Hampshire--another state both campaigns covet--suggested levity might help Cheney counter the harsh image Democrats promote. "It wouldn't hurt to poke fun at himself. He's got to take the edge away."

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