WASHINGTON - Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., power-walked to the back of a Hartford hotel atrium last week to tell television cameras how thrilled she was that Vice President Dick Cheney would be arriving any minute to raise $120,000 for her re-election race.
But instead of being asked about her campaign or the visit, Johnson was peppered with questions about Cheney's tenure as chief executive of Halliburton Co. and the Securities and Exchange Commission's investigation of accounting changes he oversaw. Johnson, insisting that the growing debate over corporate responsibility is "not just about any one person," wheeled and rushed to the front of the room to await Cheney's motorcade, reporters calling after her about the SEC.
As Cheney travels the country to raise money for Republican candidates, local news coverage has begun to focus on the SEC investigation and Democrats have begun making an issue of Cheney's lucrative stewardship of Halliburton. The result is a new vulnerability for President Bush as he struggles to persuade markets and investors that his administration is committed to prosecuting corporate fraud. Bush was asked twice about Halliburton during a news conference on Wednesday.
House Republicans in tight campaigns are increasingly worried that Democrats will succeed in pinning corporate excesses on them, GOP aides say, and Cheney has become the focus of that concern.
Cheney has made no statement about Halliburton's accounting or the SEC investigation, and his counselor, Mary Matalin, said he has no plans to. "The vice president is not remotely focused on this stale Washington politics," she said. "He's focused on his job." "Cheney's silence is deafening," a senior House Republican aide said. "If there's been one thing that should have been learned from the Clinton era, it was that these things have to be dealt with immediately, forthrightly and completely, and failure to do so gives the appearance that there really is something there."