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Cheney Beginning to Flex Some Muscle, Aides Say

Politics: GOP candidate steps up attacks on Democratic rivals in Midwest swing states. In Ohio, he talks up Bush's education proposals.


MARIETTA, Ohio — They added lights, music and picture-perfect backdrops this week to Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney's campaign. Cheney himself brought a couple of jokes, a few new suits and even a lectern-lean during Q&A sessions with the crowd.

And instead of small towns and cities in the Northeast, he hit key swing states in the Midwest.

After seven weeks on the trail, campaign aides insist the candidate is hitting his stride--stretching out political muscles that may have been a little tight after five years in the private sector.

Cheney has started hitting harder and more often at Al Gore and Joseph I. Lieberman, calling the Democratic candidates' spending plans a "swiss-cheese budget," chastising them for "hypocrisy" for lashing at Hollywood marketing and then turning around to "schmooze" and take millions in contributions.

The candidate whose very low-key style has been criticized by some Republican insiders, said he has tried to put distractions out of his mind. And he said he hasn't paid much attention to shifting polls either.

"You can't let that throw you off," he told reporters. "You've got to keep banging away at your objectives and your message and not be blown by the winds of the moment on any given issue on any given day."

His message has been consistent at nearly every stop and is growing more polished. Depending on the venue, he talks about tax cuts, Medicare reform, education, military readiness, and he takes on areas where he says Gore has "misrepresented" the Republican ticket's proposals.

In two stops Thursday at public high schools in Ohio--a state both parties consider key in this dead-heat election--he touted his running mate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, as the right choice for the country.

In a sweltering gymnasium here, where members of the band waved their cymbals back and forth for relief, Cheney was enthusiastically received by students and adults gathered to hear him speak.

But he was taken to task by one girl after giving a speech aimed more at the voting adults than the students.

"I believe the students are over here," she said from a spot in the bleachers to his side. "We have a lot to say, and we're the ones being affected by your decisions, and I don't think it's fair that you're sitting there talking to the adults and we're the ones you should be concerned about."

As his wife, Lynne, laughed and clapped loudly, Cheney said: "Duly noted. Thank you. These folks all look so young out here I thought they were students. Do you have a question?"

While she did not, Cheney stayed to take others, even though he had said hers would be the last. Earlier, as he had at other stops during the week, Cheney was quizzed about how Republican support for school vouchers would affect public schools.

"How are school systems supposed to compete with less money, and what does it mean for the voucher program in rural areas?" asked Jennifer Moyer, the editor of the school paper, who noted that public schools helped make America a "good country."

Cheney said he believes decisions about school vouchers should be left at the local level. He talked about Bush's proposal to withhold federal funds for disadvantaged students from low-performing schools if they do not improve within three years. Those funds would be made available for the parents to use for the education of their child--ranging from help with private school tuition to hiring a tutor to switching to a charter school.

"What we are advocating is not intended to damage public schools," he said.

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