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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

A Low-Key but Serious Campaigner

Vice President Cheney doesn't throw himself into the frenzy of the contest, but his pointed rhetoric reliably fires up the faithful.

September 08, 2004|James Gerstenzang and Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writers

DES MOINES — Dick Cheney may be the ultimate soft-talk, big-stick guy.

As he makes his way from state fairs to question-and-answer sessions with Republican stalwarts, the vice president's delivery is more like a whisper when compared to the cacophony of the campaign trail.

But his measured manner accentuates the take-no-prisoners message he is delivering several times a day in some of the most fought-over territory in the presidential race.

That contrast was evident Tuesday when his remarks about the terrorist threat and the choice voters face in November caused a dust-up.

There is nothing about Cheney's campaign that clamors for attention. But that is what makes it different. His entourage is spartan, often consisting only of his wife, Lynne, a few essential operatives, Secret Service agents and military communications aides.

Typically, he is accompanied by no more than half a dozen reporters, with whom he almost never engages in banter. And unlike the three other major candidates in the race, he rarely sits with local reporters for interviews -- often an easy route to the local airwaves and the front page in targeted communities.

He arrives. He speaks to friendly Republicans. He leaves.

In the Bush administration, Cheney has never been the guy who goes to funerals, pulls all the fundraising duties or does the public hatchet work. Only in recent days has he assumed an aggressive political schedule.

Consider his travel to Iowa, which Al Gore won by 4,130 votes in the last presidential election. The race in the state appears to be as close as it was four years ago. But Cheney has visited the state only seven times, in contrast to Bush, who has made the trip 16 times since taking office. And the campaign styles of the two couldn't be more different.

Bush plunges deep into crowds, arms flailing. He makes hand-shaking a contact sport. The vice president works his way down a line of supporters at a measured, polite pace.

Cheney, a scowling, even snarling, presence in cartoonists' caricatures, offers nothing more demonstrative on the stump than a quizzical grin as he waits for applause to subside.

And his best applause lines are delivered with matter-of-fact directness. "This is not an enemy we can reason with, negotiate with or appease," he said of the threat of terrorists in a recent speech. "To put it simply, this is an enemy we must destroy. And with President George W. Bush as our commander in chief, that is exactly what we will do."

Although his message was nail hard, his voice rose only slightly.

"He is not somebody who is loud and boastful," said Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who, in introducing Cheney at the Minnesota State Fair, noted that Theodore Roosevelt visited the fair 100 years ago. "He's an incredibly tough individual."

Roosevelt's advice about speaking softly and carrying a big stick hung, unmentioned, in the air.

Minutes later, as if illustrating Pawlenty's point, the vice president recounted one successful terrorist strike after another that was aimed at the United States or its allies in the two decades before the Sept. 11 attacks -- in Beirut, Saudi Arabia, Africa and the first World Trade Center assault. He contrasted the Bush administration's response with those that came before.

"The terrorists know now they can no longer strike the United States with impunity. That day is past," he said.

Cheney's style pleased Joe Hildebrand, a 20-year-old who was entering his junior year at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. The stains on Hildebrand's yellow T-shirt testified to the nearly two weeks he had spent working at the Fresh French Fries stand at the fair.

"Very calm. Very collected. Very personable" was Hildebrand's impression of the vice president, who spent an hour before an audience made up largely of invited Republican volunteers. "He seemed as though he really enjoyed talking to everybody."

The word on Cheney is that he is a stiff guy who in the run-up to elections will exercise the political practitioner's glad-handing arts, but only because it's the cost of doing business.

At least on this day, this son of Wyoming looked comfortable in faded jeans, a light-blue shirt, a tan jacket and worn but polished oxblood cowboy boots. Whether he enjoys the routines of a campaigner or not, he carries them off with sufficient aplomb.

So here he was at Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar in St. Paul, on the final day of the fair, where Martha Olson sells buckets of four dozen cookies for $11. Munching, Cheney worked his way past the racks of cookie sheets to the front counter, where he filled a bucket for himself.

From a generally friendly crowd came an angry shout: "How does it feel to work for minimum wage?" But Cheney paid it no heed.

Then he stopped next door at Famous Dave's Bar-B-Que. The saucy fragrance was overwhelming. "I'm taking some ribs back to the plane with me," Cheney confessed.

Aboard Air Force Two, Cheney spends most of his time in his forward cabin. Gore used to walk the aisle of the same plane -- occasionally in shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops -- chatting, off the record, with reporters.

Not this vice president. Cheney will talk with reporters on board only now and then. The quiet voice he uses on the stump drops to an even softer mumble. The mumble is masked by the roar of the jet engine just beyond the window.

His words are largely lost.

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