Is Dick Cheney a drag on the ticket? As President Bush's rating dips below 50 percent, some prominent Republicans are beginning nervously to wonder. "The chatter on Cheney has increased in the last two weeks," says Republican strategist Scott Reed. "Cheney has moved into the Bush world; you either love him or hate him." The charge that the Bush administration hyped the WMD threat from Iraq has thrust the vice president into the spotlight, a place he generally prefers not to be.

There was a time when Cheney's presence in the White House was regarded as reassuring. With his thin record on foreign affairs and national security, George W. Bush seemed a little callow when he took office. Cheney, the former White House chief of staff under Gerald Ford and Defense secretary under the first President Bush, was a gruff, taciturn old hand who looked as if he were comfortable sleeping in a bomb shelter. But as Cheney disappeared into his "undisclosed location" after 9/11, surfacing only occasionally to warn of dire threats from terrorists with germs and nukes, he began to look a little bit less like Gary Cooper and more like Dr. Strangelove.

White House politicos have not been insensitive to the problem, and lately Cheney has been appearing more in public. But only the president (possibly) can tell him what to say, and the vice president has continued to offer his gloomy world view. No one has appeared more scornful of the United Nations or other multilateral organizations than Cheney, so it seemed like a peace offering to the globalists when Cheney agreed to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month. But Cheney seemed unrepentant and intransigent and once more linked terrorists to the Saddam regime, despite the doubts of the intel community. The Democrats will continue to bang away at Cheney's ties to Halliburton, the giant conglomerate he once ran, and they hope (though so far without evidence) that an ongoing leaks investigation over an outed CIA agent leads into the veep's office.

In recent interviews, Cheney has mostly joked about his image problem. "Why do I want to deal with it?" he told the Los Angeles Times and USA Today in mid-January. "What's wrong with my image?... Am I the evil genius in the corner nobody ever sees come out of his hole? It's a nice way to operate, actually," the vice president chuckled in his dry, mirthless way.

Cheney has mild disdain for chattering-class hand-wringing. He took Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with him on a duck-hunting trip to Louisiana, even though the high court will soon hear a case challenging Cheney's refusal to make public records of a White House energy task force. Cheney is not likely to change much. The politicos will have to make do. It's a good thing Cheney is scary, one senior administration official told NEWSWEEK, only half joking. "Maybe he scares the terrorists." Despite the unease about Cheney's image, no one is suggesting that President Bush would be tempted to dump his veep from the ticket in November. Bush is a fierce loyalist, and he needs and values Cheney's advice--no matter how loud the chatter gets.