By the second rally of his weekend campaign swing, Vice President Dick Cheney seemed to be getting the hang of it, delivering an entire line of his standard stump speech looking at the audience instead of the podium as he usually does.
Then the audience got a little too excited. Their cheers forced him to read the same line twice. The vice president is a man who likes to get on with things.
"You guys want to hear this speech or not?" he asked, not quite kidding.
The vice president has never been much of one for campaigning, by his own account preferring serious discussion to the glib give and take of the trail. He does not so much deliver campaign speeches as he does read them in a flat monotone. He is certainly not one to lunge at a crowd; a wave from a distance will do. In 2000, President Bush repeatedly explained that he was not worried about Cheney as a campaigner, he valued him as the experienced Washington manager. And this weekend, as Cheney emerged from Washington on a three-state bus tour that was his first serious campaign swing for 2004, he showed little sign that he has come to see campaigning as much more than a chore.
Shaking hands outside the Republican Party headquarters in East Lisbon, Ohio, he moved along the rope line with the emotionless efficiency of a shopper loading groceries onto the checkout belt, cocking one side of his mouth only slightly into a smile.
Stopping at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, he shook almost no hands, and said little more on a tour than "that's great" -- when shown a touch-screen machine that allowed his granddaughter, apparently a Redskins fan, to call up information on Joe Gibbs.
And delivering his standard laugh line on John Kerry's raising taxes -- "at least the folks back in Massachusetts knew he was on the job" -- he laughed more to himself, or the podium, than with the crowd.
The Independence Day weekend bus tour provided perfect American imagery as backdrop: Cheney visited a monument to sailors and soldiers in Pittsburgh, threw out the first pitch at an Altoona Curve game here, and visited a firehouse barbecue and a pretty red brick town where a gleaming green 1937 Lincoln stood waiting to be driven outside the Republican Party headquarters.
Occasional protesters along the 320-mile route tried to emphasize his use of an obscenity on the Senate floor -- "dirty mouth, dirty politics" read one handwritten sign -- but the campaign showcased the vice president as a family man. His 10-year-old granddaughter, Kate, traveled with the vice president and his wife, Lynne, marching cheerfully in her white tennis shoes in front of her grandparents. Cheney told crowds at almost every stop that their first grandson had been born on Friday.
And the crowds at the major rallies had been assembled by local Republican officials, providing enthusiastic and hungry audiences for the vice president's speeches.
But Cheney, in his black tassel loafers and tie, seemed to move through much of the weekend perfunctorily. When a little league team asked him to pose behind it at the Curve game, he did, then walked off without a single handshake or pat on the back to a young player.
He ran through the lines of his speeches quickly, and stuck to a strict script. The throwaway laugh lines that seemed to be ad libbed were the same ones he has used in speeches in the last several weeks. As he begins to attack John Kerry, the presumed Democratic nominee, and the audience cheers, Cheney says, "This is the good part of the speech." As he ridicules Kerry for comparing the current economy to the Great Depression, "I don't know what history books they have over on the shelves at the Kerry campaign." (Cheney did alter this ever so slightly toward the end of the trip, saying "headquarters" instead of "campaign.")
At the stop in East Lisbon, he was greeted with a whistling and cheering audience outside the two-story red brick party headquarters. He waved, then quickly ducked inside.
"Well, that wasn't what I expected," said a miffed cameraman for WKBN in Youngstown. "I've been here an hour and a half."
When Cheney emerged a few minutes later, he showed little interest in the vintage car, climbing into it for brief remarks that began less than rousingly: "It's the first time we've used the sound system on top of the bus."
To illustrate that he understood the sacrifices of the troops in Iraq, he told the audience he had met a woman inside whose son was serving with the First Cavalry Division in Baghdad. He quickly moved on: "We've got a minute to shake some hands."
He spent slightly more than a minute doing so. Then, as the crowd yelled "Cheney! Cheney!" he turned to an aide and said, "We all set?" and got on the bus, only belatedly turning to wave once before turning and fidgeting his thumb over fingertips as he waited to sit down again.
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