SAN DIEGO — His former top aide is under indictment in the CIA leak probe. His poll ratings fall somewhere between bad and atrocious. Still, Dick Cheney can pack in the faithful like few others in the Republican Party.
And so the vice president came to California on Monday and Tuesday for a series of fundraisers aimed at bucking up three GOP House candidates facing unexpectedly tough fights in this political season of scandal. Democrats were delighted.
Touching down in Sacramento, Stockton and San Diego, Cheney flew as far below the figurative radar as Air Force Two would allow. His appearances were either closed to the media and public, or conducted in lightning-strike fashion.
On Monday night in Stockton, at the Bob Hope Theatre, Cheney materialized from behind a dark curtain, then swiftly disappeared after delivering 15 minutes of workmanlike remarks on behalf of Rep. Richard W. Pombo of Tracy.
On Tuesday in San Diego, Cheney ducked in and out of a Brian Bilbray fundraising lunch without ever sitting down, much less eating.
But the vice president's furtive movements didn't stop protesters from gathering outside each appearance, or keep the state Democratic Party from issuing a series of snarky bulletins tracking Cheney's "Culture of Corruption Tour."
"It's sort of a trifecta of Washington's biggest ethics problems coming together," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, referring to the Abramoff, Cunningham and Plame affairs, which served as the unheralded backdrop for Cheney's visit.
Pombo and Rep. John T. Doolittle of Roseville, the vice president's Sacramento host, each collected tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associates. Bilbray is vying on June 6 to fill the congressional seat vacated by Randy "Duke" Cunningham, now serving an eight-year prison stretch for taking bribes. Although still uphill for Democrats, the three congressional seats are considered the most likely in California to slip from the GOP's grasp.
Not surprisingly, the names Abramoff and Cunningham never passed the vice president's lips, nor did Valerie Plame's. (The unmasking of the former CIA operative is at the heart of an ongoing criminal investigation that has implicated Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.)
Instead, Cheney stuck to his practiced role as administration cheerleader and stiletto-wielding partisan. He lauded the economy's performance under President Bush and said the country had become a safer and stronger place thanks to Bush's "sound decisions" over the last five years. He called the administration's warrantless wiretapping program "absolutely vital in saving American lives."
And he all but accused Democrats of lending aid and comfort to terrorists, saying advocates of "a sudden withdrawal from Iraq are counseling the very kind of retreat that Osama bin Laden has been predicting and counting on."
The response was strikingly subdued, given the loyalties of his audiences. In Stockton, there were cheers and whoops as Cheney reeled off a tickertape of upbeat economic statistics. But his lengthy defense of the war in Iraq, his insistence that "we are on the offensive" and "have a clear plan for victory," was met with nearly complete silence.
The response was identical at Tuesday's fundraiser in San Diego, though Cheney received a warmer reception earlier in the day when he addressed hundreds of sailors and Marines on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard. "We are going to stay on the offensive and stay in the fight until the fight is done," the vice president told the cheering crowd.
Opinion polls place Cheney's approval rating from 34% in the last Gallup Poll to 20% in a CBS News survey -- the latter figure worse than President Nixon's showing when he quit the White House amid the Watergate scandal.
The numbers suggest more than Democratic discontent. Indeed, several of those who came out over the last two days said they did so mainly to support Pombo or Bilbray, who unlike Doolittle opened their fundraisers to reporters.
Asked his opinion of Cheney, Richard Solarz, a 58-year-old physicist who lives in Pombo's district, replied: "Ummm ... Uh ... " He gripped his chardonnay. He paused. "I wish we weren't in Iraq," he finally said.
But Cheney's popularity -- or lack thereof -- is largely immaterial to his own political fortunes. His name is nowhere on the November ballot, try as Democrats might to make the midterms a referendum on the Bush administration -- and he says he has run his last race.
Rather, cash was the main purpose of his trip, as even a local pastor said in Monday night's invocation.
"Lord, tonight's all about raising money," said Brent Randall Regnart of Stockton's Christian Life Center, as he sought Jesus' blessing for Bush, Cheney and Pombo and thanked the Lord for those paying upwards of $500 a head to glimpse the vice president.
Although Democrats took great glee in sniping at Cheney, "At the end of the day, each of these California candidates is going to sock a lot of money in the bank, which they'll be able to spend in the fall at a time when voters are really paying attention," said Scott Reed, a veteran GOP strategist in Washington.
According to spokesmen for the three congressional campaigns, Cheney's visit brought in well more than $800,000.
Times staff writer Tony Perry contributed to this report.