CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
While President Bush has shown reluctance to attack Sen. John Kerry on national security, Vice President Dick Cheney is proving to be more than willing. Mr. Bush has attempted to stay above the fray. Cheney has been relentless.
The – against the vice president, that is. While Kerry tours the Midwest to speak primarily on jobs this week, he will also highlight the energy policy task force led by Cheney and the "vice president's refusal to release records," said one Kerry campaign adviser.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court begins hearing arguments on whether records of Cheney's meetings with top energy industry executives should be disclosed. It is expected that Kerry will speak to the matter, targeting Cheney as a surrogate for oil companies.
In doing so, Kerry will cite Cheney's former job as chief executive officer of oil services giant Halliburton from 1995 to August 2000. Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root is the primary government contractor charged with restoring Iraq's oil industry.
KBR's estimated $7 billion open-ended contract was awarded without competitive bidding. the military have dogged the company. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating.
But does any of that matter to voters? No, says presidential historian Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.
"It strikes me that it is a strategic mistake to waste their time attacking the vice president," Hess said. "Nobody really votes for or against a vice president."
The Bush campaign is unveiling a $10 million television advertising campaign this week that highlights weapons systems Kerry voted against in the Senate. Monday in Fulton, Mo., Cheney listed a litany of those Kerry votes.
"The senator from Massachusetts has given us ample grounds to doubt the judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security," Cheney said. "Senator Kerry has yet to outline any serious plan to win the war on terror."
The vice president cited Kerry's vote against the 1991 Gulf War. He pointed out that Kerry voted for the current war in Iraq and then against the $87 billion supplemental bill for Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Dick Cheney took audacity to a new level today by going after John Kerry for positions that Dick Cheney himself has taken," Kerry spokesman Paul Singer said in a statement to reporters.
"Dick Cheney didn't serve in the military but he attacks John Kerry's commitment to defense," Singer continued. "The Vice-President's shameful remarks about a decorated war hero like John who risked his life trying to save the lives of others make it clear that the Bush campaign has no problem stomping on the truth."
The question is whose truth matters. Both Cheney and Kerry have supported the ending of certain weapons programs – Kerry through Senate votes and Cheney while serving as Secretary of Defense in the administration of the first President Bush. For example, both Cheney and Kerry voted against or attempted to limit the Apache Helicopter program.
As Cheney spends stump speech after stump speech criticizing Kerry, the Democrats have begun to coin him the "attack dog-in-chief."
"The role of a vice presidential candidate is often exactly that, the attack dog, the one who can say things with the bark off, in a way that it might be considered tactless for the president to do," Hess explained. "In some cases the vice presidential is actually picked because he excels at that."
In 1964, Barry Goldwater chose William Miller, a little-known New York congressman and the chairman of the Republican National Committee, as his running mate because of his reputation as a politician who could play hardball. Like Cheney, Miller was also seen as dedicated, fervently conservative, yet colorless.
Cheney's strong attack skills could lead the presumptive Democratic nominee to pick a running mate who can effectively stand against Cheney. Though on Election Day, Americans historically base their vote on who's at the top of the ticket, not who fills the number-two slot. This is still President Bush's election to win or lose, not Dick Cheney's.
"Vice presidents are not what this election is all about, either in terms of Cheney or in terms of who Kerry picks for his vice president," Hess said. "The main concern in picking a vice-presidential nominee is still that he do no harm. This was the case when Nixon picked Spiro Agnew and to some degree Dan Quayle, too."