By ELISABETH BUMILLER
The New York Times
July 15, 2004
WASHINGTON, July 14 - In the annals of Washington conspiracy theories, the latest one, about Vice President Dick Cheney's future on the Republican ticket, is as ingenious as it is far-fetched. But that has not stopped it from racing through Republican and Democratic circles like the latest low-carb diet.
The newest theory - advanced privately by prominent Democrats, including members of Congress - holds that Mr. Cheney recently dismissed his personal doctor so that he could see a new one, who will conveniently tell him in August that his heart problems make him unfit to run with Mr. Bush. The dismissed physician, Dr. Gary Malakoff, who four years ago declared that Mr. Cheney was "up to the task of the most sensitive public office" despite a history of heart disease, was dropped from Mr. Cheney's medical team because of an addiction to prescription drugs.
"I don't know where they get all these conspiracy theories," said Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign's chief strategist, who has heard them all. "It's inside-the-Beltway coffee talk, is all it is."
It may be inside the Beltway, but in recent days the Washington summer clamor about dropping Mr. Cheney has so greatly intensified that Mr. Cheney himself was forced to address it on Wednesday. Asked in a C-Span interview if he could envision any circumstances under which he would step aside, Mr. Cheney replied: "Well, no, I can't. If I thought that were appropriate, I certainly would."
In the interview, to be broadcast Sunday, Mr. Cheney also said that Mr. Bush "has made very clear he doesn't want to break up the team," but that chatter of his stepping down was to be expected.
"I suppose right now, because we're in the run-up to the convention, people don't have much to talk about so you get speculation on that," he said. "It's normal. When we get to the convention, I think that'll put an end to that." Who would replace Mr. Cheney has nonetheless became a favorite Washington guessing game, with the names of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Senator John McCain of Arizona whispered about the most. Never mind that neither has a particularly cordial relationship with Mr. Bush, and that neither has expressed interest in the job. Other names that keep popping up include Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader.
There is also something of an under-the-radar campaign among Republicans promoting their friends for a job that may never come open. As an example, boosters of Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, have long tried to toss his name in the mix, despite the fact that friends of the president say he would never pick Mr. Giuliani.
The rumblings about Mr. Cheney are similar to those that plagued Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992, when Secretary of State James A. Baker III led efforts to push Mr. Quayle off the ticket. But the reasons are different.
Mr. Quayle was seen as a bumbler who could not spell "potato," making him an easy target for Bill Clinton's campaign. Mr. Cheney, who has suffered four heart attacks, has faced persistent questions about his powerful role in promoting the war in Iraq and insisting that Saddam Hussein had unconventional weapons.
But like Mr. Quayle, Mr. Cheney suffers from low approval ratings. Last month, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that 21 percent of voters had a favorable impression of Mr. Cheney, compared with 39 percent for Mr. Bush.
Democrats, as part of their campaign to discredit the competition, are energetically promoting the idea that Mr. Cheney is a drag on the ticket. But none of them are suggesting that Mr. Bush should drop him.
"He has come to be a polarizing figure who repels voters," said Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Senator John Kerry. But asked if that did not make Mr. Cheney a dream candidate to run against, Mr. Devine demurred. "I'm not going to lob one in that direction," he said. "I don't want to be the Kerry guy who says 'We want Cheney.' "
Republicans close to the Bush campaign say that the Democrats are using Mr. Cheney as a powerful way to attack Mr. Bush and undermine the White House. "When the Democrats attacked Dan Quayle, it didn't matter a lot," said Vin Weber, a former congressman who is the Bush campaign's chairman for the upper Midwest. "Nobody thought Dan Quayle was the president's most trusted adviser, with broad responsibilities. But Democrats understand that when you go after this vice president, you really go after the administration.''
But even some Republicans are now questioning whether Mr. Cheney should stay on the ticket. As one House Republican said, conspiratorially, outside the House chamber this week, "Watch Cheney." Another Republican member of Congress said that Mr. Cheney was increasingly viewed as a political liability.
"I don't think you fix the problem by changing the No. 2 horse, but Bush is facing so much heavy baggage going into November, he's going to have to throw some of that baggage off," said the Republican, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
One recent contribution to the buzz about Mr. Cheney came Tuesday in a column by Charlie Cook, the editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Stipulating that dumping a totally loyal, integral part of his inner circle is something that is absolutely not in George W. Bush's DNA, losing with plenty of notice does not appear to be part of his genetic makeup either," Mr. Cook wrote. He concluded that in an election year as close as this one, "the president badly needs something to shake this race up, and I can think of just one thing. Cheney may need to watch his back."
Mr. Cook's column came less than a week after Alfonse M. D'Amato, the once-influential Republican senator from New York, said on the cable station NY1 that Mr. Bush should replace Mr. Cheney with Mr. Powell or Mr. McCain. Mr. D'Amato's motives have stirred speculation among New Yorkers, although some who know him well said that getting attention might have been primary among them. An assistant in Mr. D'Amato's office said Wednesday that he would have no further comment on the matter.
Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, said that Mr. D'Amato's comments had not thrown the White House into any evident frenzy. As Mr. King recounted it, he was recently at the White House with another member of Congress and had a brief conversation with Mr. Bush. The other member of Congress mentioned Mr. D'Amato's comments to Mr. Bush, Mr. King said, and Mr. Bush laughed.
"He didn't seem concerned or angry," Mr. King said. "And then I said that Al is getting married on Sunday and he's got other things on his mind." Mr. Bush responded, Mr. King said, by saying, "Tell him the president wishes him well on his wedding day."