Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

Cheney: 'I Really Like This Crowd'

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    RIO RANCHO— A plain-spoken Dick Cheney fired up an already hot crowd here Saturday afternoon, spelling out sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats as the presidential contest heads into its final three months.
    The vice president, at the end of a four-day tour of the West, visited a school gym packed with supporters and was cheered on with shouts of "four more years." The cheers were bolstered by loud boos when he described the Democrats' agenda.
    At one point, he stopped his speech for a moment, grinned his famous, sly grin and said, "I really like this crowd."
    The green and blue gymnasium of Rio Rancho Mid-High School was an appropriate place for the event— a sweaty pep rally with all the patriotic trappings. Waving flags and red, white and blue balloons greeted the vice president as he arrived after a 30-minute trip from the Albuquerque International Sunport to the Sandoval County mesa.
    Cheney was introduced by his wife, Lynne, and spoke for about 25 minutes, offering a defense of President Bush's domestic and foreign policies.
    Bush has strengthened the economy, made the country safer from terrorism and waged a necessary war, Cheney said.
    Cheney did not shrink from lingering controversy over the stated reasons for invading Iraq, saying Bush had removed Saddam Hussein, a leader who had "developed weapons of mass destruction and used them against the Iraqi people."
    Cheney and Bush have both been on the road in recent days, having their say after the Democrats' four-day nominating convention in Boston.
    Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, the Democratic ticket, are scheduled to campaign in New Mexico later this week.
About the hair ...
    Cheney, a balding senior citizen with hang-dog demeanor, poked fun at himself and comparisons with Edwards, his peppy and telegenic opponent.
    Kerry picked Edwards, Cheney said, because he's "charming, good looking and has great hair."
    "How do you think I got the job?" he asked.
    But Cheney had serious criticism for the Kerry-Edwards ticket.
    "What we're hearing from the other side is the failed thinking of the past," he said. "We're not going back."
    New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid offered the Democratic response to the Cheney rally in a telephone interview earlier in the day.
    Madrid called Cheney "one of the main architects" of the conflict in Iraq. She also said she believes the Bush administration's "main motivator was for the personal gain of Halliburton"— a company for which Cheney once was an executive.
    "He ought to answer to the mothers and fathers of New Mexico who have children serving in Iraq," Madrid said.
No interruptions
    Cheney's speech was heard by a happy, homogeneous crowd by design. Republican organizers, who gave out about 2,000 tickets to the free event, tried to hand out passes only to registered Republicans or people who signed a pledge supporting Bush.
    The approach was designed to keep protesters from disrupting the rally, organizers said, and it worked. Cheney spoke without interruption, and critics of the Bush administration never got closer than a half-mile from the event.
    People who did get tickets had to stand in line outside Rio Rancho High School to board shuttle buses and then stand in line again outside Rio Rancho Mid-High School to get through metal detectors and into the gym.
    It was a hot, shadeless day in the high desert, but spirits stayed high.
    "The accepted chant as we go by the protesters is 'Four more years!,' '' a GOP organizer told a charged-up bus-full of the faithful as they pulled out of the parking lot.
    "Nothing worse?" Charles Brown of Albuquerque asked.
    Brown, a registered Republican, said he had mixed feelings about the party's efforts to restrict the crowd to the Bush-Cheney supporters— a decision that angered Democrats and helped to swell the throng of protesters down the road.
    "It seems like everyone should be able to see the vice president," he said.
    But Brown said he also understood wanting a trouble-free event during a polarized election.
    "I think this is one of those elections where there's not much middle ground," Brown said. "I think this is the most important election in my lifetime, and I think Democrats would agree. It's a classic conservative-liberal matchup."
Hot crowd
    Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, the Bernalillo County Bush-Cheney '04 chairman, didn't need to warm up the standing-room-only crowd inside the gym before Cheney's arrival.
    It was nearly 100 degrees outside and not much cooler inside. But White gave the Republicans a rousing exhortation to get busy in the next three months and work for every vote.
    Cheney— a fixture in the Nixon and Ford administrations, a six-term congressman from Wyoming, George H.W. Bush's defense secretary, and chief executive officer of oil giant Halliburton Corp. before being tapped by the younger Bush as vice president— ran down the administration's list of accomplishments. He cited tax cuts, Medicare reforms, the Patriot Act, the Healthy Forests initiative and a "strong economy that's getting stronger."
    He told the crowd it needed to work until election day to keep a Republican majority in Congress, make the Bush administration's tax cuts permanent and increase oil production in the United States.
    Air Force Two touched down at Albuquerque International Sunport about 4:05 p.m. and Cheney— casually clad in boots, blue jeans, a blue shirt and tan jacket— and his wife, Lynne, were welcomed by a greeting committee of six at Cutter Aviation.
    "We said welcome back to New Mexico," said John Sanchez, regional chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign, who was among the group. "Being a former congressman from Wyoming, he understands the issues facing the West part of America."
    Journal staff writer Lloyd Jojola contributed to this report.