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In the Crossfire

Dick Cheney can hide, but can he run?

(CNN) -- Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at the Commonwealth Club of California on Wednesday and announced that he would be willing to serve a second term if asked. Is he the best man for the job? Have Cheney's past business dealings made him a liability?

Republican strategist Charlie Black and Democratic strategist Steve McMahon step into the "Crossfire" with hosts Paul Begala and Robert Novak to debate a Bush-Cheney ticket in 2004.

BEGALA: He can hide, but can he run? Dick Cheney's been spending most of the last few months in hiding, not from terrorists, but from reporters who want to ask him tough questions about his tenure at Halliburton, now the subject of an investigation by the Bush-Cheney Securities and Exchange Commission.

Yesterday he had to remind a crowd that, yes, he might be able to run for re-election.

We're discussing the vice president's job performance with Republican consultant Charlie Black and Democratic consultant Steve McMahon.

NOVAK: Steve McMahon, one thing that Dick Cheney has that his predecessor, as vice president, Mr. Gore had, is a -- didn't have -- is a sense of humor.

And let's listen to something he said yesterday at the Commonwealth Club.

(Videotape begins)

CHENEY: When I get on the elevator there's a guy there with a black bag -- actually two guys with black bags. One has the football, the other has medical capabilities.

(Videotape ends)

NOVAK: I don't know if you can appreciate that old geezers like me, a two-time cancer survivor, have a lot of admiration for the courage of Dick Cheney as somebody who has survived heart disease and lived a very useful life. Can you appreciate that?

MCMAHON: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think if you, you know, you change the batteries and give him a little Pravachol he'll be ready for four more years.

NOVAK: Well, see, you make fun of it...

MCMAHON: No, I'm not making fun of it, I'm actually serious.

I actually don't think his health should be an issue. I don't think it really is an issue with voters. And I think, you know, he was elected as part of this ticket in spite of his health. And I think if the president decides to keep him, he's not going to drag down this ticket. Personally I think he propped up the ticket last time, and probably helped the president get elected.

NOVAK: I want to ask you this: If you know that he is -- you know, there's a lot of razzamatazz and shoe polish about Al Gore being the most effective vice president.

This guy is probably the most -- I've been in this town 45 years. He's the most effective vice president and most powerful vice president I have seen -- and influential. Do you agree with that?

MCMAHON: Boy, I'll tell you, this is an area where there's going to be a little bit more agreement than you might find from a Democrat. I think he's been, actually, an asset to the president. Partly for reasons that you might not appreciate, because I think on a ticket like this, when you had Dan Quayle at the top of the ticket instead of the bottom, it's actually more important than ever to have somebody there...

NOVAK: I was waiting for the rabbit punch.

BEGALA: Let me take this on. One of the great myths in Washington from people that have been around here 45 years is that Dick Cheney is competent as vice president. He is not. He is woefully incompetent.

Let me make the case, Mr. Black.

BLACK: What in the world are you talking about?

BEGALA: Sit tight.

He's been in charge of basically four things. On May 8, 1991, our president asked him to chair a task force on terrorism. The task force never met, never once, until after September 11. He had time to meet with Enron executives in his energy task force; he did not have time to chair the terrorism task force our president instructed him to chair.

Case in point No. 2: that energy task force, it was a political and substantive debacle for the president defeated in the Senate.

Three: The president sent him to the Middle East on a very important trip to allies for our support -- to support us in an attack against Iraq. He came back empty-handed.

And four: He's working on those war plans, and they leak to the papers every single day.

This guy can't play the game, can he?

BLACK: Well, nobody in America, including you, thinks Dick Cheney leaks things to the papers.

BEGALA: But it's happening under his watch.

BLACK: He is a part of the team here, and an important part of the team, as an experienced former secretary of defense. But he's not the secretary of defense, nor does he wear a uniform and do the war planning.

Go over them again, I mean, the thing about...

BEGALA: He never met -- the president asked him on May 8 of last year to chair a task force on terrorism and they never met. They never convened.

BLACK: The fact is that there was a lot of staff, including Joe Allbaugh, one of the most senior guys in the administration, were meeting and were planning. But they were playing a lot of catch-up ball since the Clinton administration did nothing about terrorism for eight years.

BEGALA: Which is actually false. But let's keep it on Cheney.

Do you know who General Don Carrick is? He's a three-star general; he's not a partisan. He did an interview in The Washington Post where he said the Clinton people met all the time on this, and he did not detect the same sort of focus among the Bush people.

And the fact that Cheney never even convened a meeting of that task force...

BLACK: Well, it's embarrassing if they actually had a meeting to decide not to accept Osama bin Laden when the Sudanese offered him up during the Clinton administration.

BEGALA: No, the energy task force, a total debacle. He's being sued by the General Accounting Office, and it was defeated in the Senate.

BLACK: It's a spurious suit. But you know what? About 75 percent of what Bush and Cheney proposed is in the energy bill, and about 100 percent of it's in the House bill. And they're going to come out of conference with very close to a big win.

NOVAK: Steve McMahon, the strategy of the Democratic Party is to attack Bush and Cheney for being former corporate executives. There's a problem with that, which is shown in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that Bush and Cheney had experience as corporate executives? Seventy-two percent good thing, 21 percent bad thing. You're on the wrong wicket on this thing, aren't you?

MCMAHON: Well, I think it depends on what kind of experience they had, and I think the SEC files contain a lot of information about what kind of experience the president had, and I think some upcoming SEC files are about to have a lot of information about what kind of experience Vice President Cheney has, and maybe they'll both on the same day want to release those files so we can all find out about their corporate experience.

NOVAK: That's worse than McCarthyism.

MCMAHON: No, no, no, Bob.

NOVAK: I'll tell you why it's worse. Because McCarthy put up a piece of paper and he says I have a list of Communists. You don't even have the paper. You're just guessing.

BEGALA: Bush is hiding it!

NOVAK: Can you let Mr. McMahon answer, please?

MCMAHON: Harvey Pitt has said we've got the file, it's all right here, if the president would just ask us, we'll release it. What's the problem? It's not McCarthyism.