At the start of the Bush presidency, Dick Cheney was viewed as the grown-up, the seasoned hand to guide an inexperienced president. Now, he’s the center of controversy.

His accidental shooting of a hunting companion and the administration’s fumbles in getting out the word underscore the secrecy and near independence under which the vice president operates _ and it all sent the White House scrambling on Tuesday to find the right tone when the victim’s condition took a turn for the worse.

After first defensively fielding questions on why disclosure of the Saturday shooting was delayed until the next day, Press Secretary Scott McClellan joked about the situation with reporters at his morning briefing. Later, he turned somber after doctors in Corpus Christi, Texas, said the Austin lawyer shot by Cheney _ Henry Whittington, 78 _ had suffered a minor heart attack after birdshot from Cheney’s blast migrated to his heart.

“If you want to continue to spend time on that, that’s fine,” McClellan told reporters pressing him on the shooting incident. “We’re moving on to the priorities of the American people. That’s where our focus is.”

The shooting presents a new problem for the White House as it seeks to repair damaged credibility in a midterm election year in which continued GOP control of Congress hangs in the balance.

Cheney, 65, whose “favorable” rating was just 24 percent in a recent CBS-New York Times poll, has found himself in other storms swirling around the Bush presidency.

His strong insistence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction helped build the case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He also has played the role of point man in the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program in the war on terror.

And, more recently, his indicted former chief of staff _ I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby _ testified to a grand jury about being authorized to disclose classified information to the press in the CIA leak case “by his superiors,” according to court documents. Democrats have demanded to know whether Cheney was one of those superiors.

“These things become symptoms of a broader disquiet with Cheney,” said Paul C. Light, professor of public service at New York University.

Among moderate and liberal Americans, “there is such an anger toward Cheney,” Light said. “There are people who believed he pulled the trigger figuratively on a lot of things. Vice presidents can get away with hitting people with golf balls, but they can’t get away with shooting people with shotguns.”

Questions linger over why so much time passed before Saturday’s shooting was made public and before Cheney and members of his party were interviewed by local law enforcement.

Cheney himself has uttered no words publicly about the mishap, avoiding reporters during a visit to Capitol Hill on Tuesday for meetings with lawmakers. His office issued a terse, unsigned statement describing Whittington’s condition and saying that Cheney had phoned him from the White House.

Whittington’s “spirits were good, but obviously his situation deserves the careful monitoring that his doctors are providing,” the statement said.

Unlike the president, who is accompanied by a news media pool whenever he travels in public, Cheney repeatedly makes unannounced trips around town and around the country _ as he did with his weekend hunting excursion in south Texas, and again on his trip to the Capitol on Tuesday.

Cheney remains popular with the GOP conservative base. Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster and strategist, said that all vice presidents have to overcome the fact that “you never get the benefit of the doubt for the good things you do, and never any lack of blame for the bad things.”

He said he expects the controversy to pass, especially if Whittington makes a full recovery.

If the shooting victim’s condition worsens, that could increase the seriousness of the incident, and bring more scrutiny to bear on what exactly happened on the private Texas ranch.

“But if somehow the president considers Cheney gets to be a liability, I think that getting rid of him or encouraging him to step down would cause problems for the Republicans with their base,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.

“And Cheney is like a member of the Bush family. The president would no sooner push Cheney overboard than he would Jeb,” Baker said, referring to Bush brother Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida.


Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973.

© 2006 The Associated Press