CAMP PENDLETON — With Vice President Dick Cheney standing between two 155-millimeter howitzers and delivering a rousing pep talk to Marines on Tuesday, President Bush's reelection campaign had the image it wanted to counter Democratic attacks from Boston.
Cheney used his appearance before 2,500 camouflage-clad Marines, many of whom have served in Iraq, to defend the administration's decision to go to war.
With a giant American flag hanging in the background, the rally also gave Cheney an opportunity to highlight what the Republican administration considers Bush's greatest strength: his national security credentials.
After Cheney rallied the troops, he went on to fundraisers in Bakersfield and Riverside to rally the GOP base, unleashing his strongest attack on the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry, since the Democratic National Convention opened Monday.
Cheney contended that Kerry's election would lead to higher taxes and assailed the Massachusetts senator for approving the use of force against Iraq but then opposing a war-spending measure.
When he addressed the troops, Cheney did not mention Kerry but defended Bush's doctrine of military preemption, a policy that has come under attack from Democrats.
"President Bush is determined to remove threats before they arrive instead of simply waiting for another attack on our country," the vice president said.
In a line that he repeated at the campaign fundraisers, Cheney said: "Terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness."
Cheney told the Marines that they had made the nation safer but that difficult work to stabilize Iraq lies ahead. About 14,000 members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Pendleton are deployed in Iraq. No figures on the number of casualties from Camp Pendleton were immediately available.
Defending the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Cheney said, "Sixteen months ago, Iraq was a gathering threat to the United States and the civilized world. Now it is a rising democracy, an ally in the war on terror -- and the American people are safer for it." His remarks were punctuated with shouts of "Hoo-rah!" -- a traditional Marine Corps battle cry.
Lance Cpl. Damian Whiteman, 19, of Crow Agency, Mont., typified many Marines in saying he found Cheney's speech "motivating." He especially appreciated hearing the vice president talk about a pay raise for military personnel.
"It's good to see he cares about us," he said.
Whiteman agreed that the U.S. mission in Iraq is "something that has to be done. Now they're like us; they can have their own freedom."
Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University, called Cheney's speech before the troops a classic execution of the Rose Garden strategy.
"It provided a stage for the vice president to associate with the troops and highlight their accomplishments, regardless if one thinks the war in Iraq was worth it or not," McDonald said.
Later, in a speech at the GOP fundraiser in Bakersfield, Cheney defended the president's decision to go to war alone if necessary, rather than take time to build international support if Bush believes the county faces a serious threat.
"President Bush will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of the United States of America," Cheney said.
Though Iraq poses political problems for the administration, Cheney's appearance before the troops helps the Republican ticket, said John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
With President Bush spending this week at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Cheney has become the leading GOP voice in responding to attacks leveled against the administration during the Democratic convention. Cheney's trip through the West this week "reassures Republicans that their guys are still in the fight," Pitney said.
Cheney cranked up the anti-Kerry message during appearances at fund-raisers in Bakersfield for state Sen. Roy Ashburn, who is running for the House seat being vacated by Democrat Calvin Dooley, and in Riverside for Bill Jones, the former California secretary of state who is challenging incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer for a U.S. Senate seat.
After Cheney and Jones entered the rustic Mission Inn, groups of about 50 demonstrators each lined up on opposite street corners, exchanging chants of "Four more years" and "No more lies." A line of police stood between the demonstrators and the hotel.
Inside, supporters filtered into the high-ceilinged, wood-beamed reception room in front of a stage decorated with a large California state flag -- in keeping with the day's theme of the vice president going on the road to help strengthen the Republican Party.
In his first public comments on the Democratic convention, Cheney said, "The president and I have some important differences with the folks gathering in Boston."