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Cheney is looking like a liability

Gertrude Kovak, who says she is "89 and a half," sat in her wheelchair at the Methodist seniors home here, up in the front row where she could get a good gander at Dick Cheney.

So, I asked after the Republican's talk on prescription drugs, how did she like what he had to say?

"Wel-l-l," she replied, hesitating. "You can't tell. A lot of people didn't hear a thing. He speaks so softly."

Reporters, who have been having trouble capturing Cheney's low monotone on tape, said they were buying bigger microphones for their tape recorders.

Cheney was in Connecticut to chant the Bush campaign's newest populist slogan, "Real plans for real people." Of course, the Halliburton gazillionaire may not be the best medium for the message.

Belittling Al Gore's criticisms of W.'s Medicare drug plan, Cheney said, "Apparently, the vice president has trouble understanding the concept of options." Perhaps it would be best if the king of stock windfalls avoided the "O" word.

There is much gnashing and grinding in GOP circles over the vice presidential contest. There's a thrilled Joe Lieberman, praising the Lord and making the Democrats _ the immoral, skirt-chasing party _ look a little more kosher.

And there's "Big Time" Dick Cheney, still learning how to make hand motions when he talks.

A new ABC-Washington Post poll shows that Lieberman's favorability ratings have nearly doubled, while Cheney's unfavorability ratings have nearly doubled.

"I don't spend a lot of time worrying about my favorables or unfavorables," Big Time told reporters on Friday. "It's not a personality contest . . ." Can someone explain to him that the whole rationale for W.'s candidacy was that he was supposed to be the likable one.

The two veep contenders invaded each other's home turf on Friday. Holy Joe went to Houston to berate W. for his poor record on health care for Texas children. And Big Time, who has an undeniable talent for turning political influence into quick bucks, went to Greenwich to crowbar some big bucks out of the lockjaw set.

So far, there are three lessons to draw from the Cheney debacle:

1. Never choose a back-room guy you think would be good at governing, because if he's lousy at politicking, he may never get to the governing part.

2. Even if you pick a loyal family retainer, vet him.

3. Don't select somebody just to please Daddy.

Friday was the most humiliating day in vice-presidential politics since we lost Dan Quayle.

In the wake of the open-mike flub and questions about his mingy charitable contributions, Cheney was pinching those pinched lips again. He was pestered about a Dallas Morning News report that he had skipped voting in 14 of 16 elections since he registered in Dallas County nearly five years ago _ including W.'s March presidential primary.

"I traveled a great deal," Big Time explained, adding, "My focus was on global concerns."

Hmmm? Too busy with Halliburton's state of affairs to vote for the candidate he was tutoring in the affairs of state. Hasn't Cheney ever heard of absentee ballots?

Which brings us to Big Time lesson No. 4: If you want votes, cast votes.

Halliburton is becoming a House of Horrors.

The AP's Larry Margasak reported on Friday that the company has a segregated restroom policy, keeping separate restrooms overseas for its American and foreign employees. Halliburton said the policy was "no different than Eastern countries that often designate facilities for use by Westerners."

Come again?

As a final fillip to an embarrassing day, Cheney pointedly ignored Mark Nielsen, the local Republican congressional candidate.

Friday was the debut of Nielsen's campaign ad that showed pictures of former President George Bush, John McCain and Joe Lieberman, while the announcer intones, "Today, when America wants leaders of honesty and integrity. . . ."

Little Bush and Big Time were conspicuously missing.

The eager GOP candidate had made a decision about where to look for coattails _ and it wasn't on his own party's ticket.

Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times News Service