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CAMPAIGN 2000

Former Sen. Simpson Gives Cheney the Lead-In That He Needed

October 11, 2000|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — Alan K. Simpson likes to complain that, in the old days, when they campaigned together, his friend Dick Cheney stole all his best jokes. Take this one, a joke Simpson calls the "Wyoming classic":

A couple have just hit the sack--3 o'clock in the morning--and the phone rings. The husband answers it, listens and says: "How the heck do I know? It's 2,000 miles from here."

Who, the wife asks, was that?

He says: "Just some nut wanting to know if the coast was clear."

The two men are campaigning together again, now with Cheney pursuing the vice presidency. But this time Simpson is cracking most of the jokes. And in the days since the vice presidential debate last week, former Sen. Simpson of Wyoming has proved to be exactly what the often-reserved Cheney may have needed all along: a warm-up act.

Simpson's lead-in is equal parts stand-up routine and indictment of Vice President Al Gore's character. He can be as barbed as he is funny. The jokes: "Two prisoners are in a cell in another state and one of them turns to the other and says: 'The food was better here when you were governor.' " (This one got big laughs in Louisiana and Arkansas, states with former governors really in prison.)

The attack: "Bush makes things happen. Gore makes things up."

Alongside his lanky friend of three decades, Cheney has a part that suits him well: straight man. And Simpson's eagerness to go negative has allowed the candidate to be more gentlemanly in his own steady attacks on Gore's veracity.

Asked by a supporter in Bend, Ore., this week why he doesn't verbally smack at his opponents harder, Cheney laughed and said: "That's why I've got my attack dog Simpson with me." Simpson just laughed.

But on the subject of Gore, Simpson finds no humor. He has used a thesaurus entry of words to go after the Democratic candidate: dissemble, deceit, make up and exaggeration. When last week he called Gore the "provocative prevaricator of our times," he told the audience in Shreveport, La.: "There's a better word, but I can't use it here."

At every opportunity, Simpson has told a story accusing then-Sen. Gore of essentially selling his 1991 vote supporting the Gulf War Resolution to the highest bidder--the side that would give him the most minutes to speak on the Senate floor. The version of events is hotly contested by Gore campaign aides, including communications director Mark D. Fabiani, who called it "as old and tired as Simpson is old and tired." Simpson is 69.

For Cheney, the trail seems to have gotten more fun in recent days, thanks in no small part to Simpson--although accolades for his strong debate performance and rising poll numbers have no doubt played a role as well.

And while Cheney seems lackluster when he has followed charismatic Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas J. Ridge--a finalist for the vice presidential slot--the "Dick and Alan Show" has let him get in a few zingers of his own.

Cheney likes to tell the audience that when Simpson was in the Senate, he got a little nervous about Cheney, the state's lone congressman, aspiring to move to the other side of the hill.

"That's why he always made sure to come back and campaign with me," Cheney says. "To keep an eye on me."

And Simpson--whose last day on the trail for now is today--said he was happy to hit the road once again with his old buddy, who still laughs at all his old stories.

"And I'm ready to come back again," he added.

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