By RON FOURNIER
It’s not Dick Cheney’s hunting mishap that worries Republicans. It’s his other scandal — the CIA leak case and the threat it poses to the embattled vice president.
Republican activists acknowledge that the accidental shooting of Cheney’s friend is the talk of mainstream America and has made the vice president the butt of jokes. But they do not expect political fallout from the shooting or the clumsy way in which it was disclosed.
“It’s hard to believe that anybody can make Dick Cheney a sympathetic figure,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “That’s what the media has done.”
Republicans say they are pleasantly surprised that the intense media coverage of the hunting accident has shifted attention from the case of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s former chief of staff. Libby is accused of misleading investigators about who leaked the identify of a CIA official.
In documents released two weeks ago, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald said he understood that Libby’s superiors authorized him to disclose to the media details of a secret report that is central to the investigation. What does Cheney know? “It’s nothing I can talk about,” he said in a television interview Wednesday. “I may well be called as a witness at some point in the case and it’s, therefore, inappropriate for me to comment on any facet of the case.”
That’s the scandal to watch, Republicans said.
The hunting accident “really has gotten Scooter Libby out of the press,” said Deb Gullett, a GOP activist from Phoenix, who is chief of staff to the city’s mayor. “But it will come back.”
“There are so many things going on that could be a great concern for Republicans, but this hunting thing is not one of them,” she said. “Should he have said something sooner about the accident? Of course he should have. But is it the end of the world? Of course not.”
Fellow Republicans said growing anti-war sentiment and President Bush’s warrantless spying program are bigger political problems for the GOP.
“At the White House press briefing, I think two-thirds of the questions were about this (hunting accident) when we have Iraq and a whole slew of other issues to deal with,” including the CIA leak case, said J. Everett Moore Jr., a Washington lawyer and former chairman of the Delaware GOP.
Cole said, “It does look to the average American that this is a self-indulgent exercise on behalf of the press when there are real debatable issues out there.”
For now, the focus is on Cheney’s shooting ability rather than whether he is shooting straight about the CIA leak case.
“The image of him falling is something I’ll never ever be able to get out of my mind,” Cheney told Fox News Channel about his friend, as the White House sought to cast him as a sympathetic figure.
The vice president shot 78-year-old lawyer Harry Whittington while quail hunting in Texas on Saturday. “I fired, and there’s Harry falling. It was, I’d have to say, one of the worst days of my life at that moment,” Cheney said.
Even some Democrats weren’t sure whether the latest Cheney controversy was good or bad for the White House.
“The bad news is he’s talking about shooting a man, blaming the victim and covering it up,” said Democratic consultant Jim Jordan. The White House initially suggested Whittington was at fault for putting himself in range of Cheney’s rifle.
“The good news is he’s not talking about his indicted chief of staff or ordering the leaking of classified information,” Jordan said.
Political scientists outside Washington said they doubted Cheney would pay a political price for the hunting incident, though the case has reinforced his reputation as a secretive and controlling political power.
“It wasn’t good huntsmanship, but it wasn’t anything of national importance,” said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political science professor. “If it turns out that Scooter Libby is now willing to testify that he got directions from the vice president to leak the name of a CIA agent, that’s a far more serious issue and damaging to Cheney.”
“That other scandal is the one worth watching,” he said.
Ron Fournier has covered politics and the White House for The Associated Press since 1992.
Ã‚Â© 2006 The Associated Press