Around Bush-Cheney headquarters, they are known, respectfully but also with a certain amount of eye-rolling, as The Family. Vice President Dick Cheney's wife, Lynne, and daughters Liz and Mary can be intense, insular and prickly as they protect their man, his reputation and his place on the GOP ticket. For White House and campaign staffers, the Cheney family can be dangerous to cross and easy to disappoint. Since taking office, Cheney is on his fourth press secretary, and all of them have appeared to be afraid of even trying to pass on tough or annoying questions from reporters. Prospective Cheney staffers are expected to be "part of The Family." The connotation is not quite the Sopranos, but it's not about baking cookies, either.

The Family has been feeling a little besieged lately. Last week The New York Times ran a front-page story relating a plan--characterized by the paper as "ingenious as it is far-fetched" to dump Cheney under the guise of bringing on a new doctor who would pronounce the veep as unfit for office. The paper both floated the rumor and quickly knocked it down, prominently quoting a Bush campaign aide as saying, "I don't know where they get all these conspiracy theories. It's inside-the-Beltway coffee talk, is all it is." Still, the story's appearance on page one of the paper of record was further evidence, if any were needed, that the Washington gossip mill is buzzing loudly for Cheney's head.

The Cheneys have been inadvertently amplifying the noise. Interviewing Dick and Lynne Cheney at the vice president's mansion, C-Span's Steve Scully asked, "What is it going to take for reporters to stop asking the question whether you are going to be on the ticket?" Cheney muttered, through barely open lips, "In the run-up to the convention, people don't have much to talk about, so you get speculation on that." He laconically added, "When we get to the convention, I think that'll put an end to it."

A suitably low-key, dismissive answer. But after the camera was turned off, Lynne Cheney, who had been forcefully interjecting herself throughout the interview, lit into Scully. She chastised the interviewer for questioning her husband's place on the ticket, according to a source who has spoken to the Cheneys. The outburst seemed uncalled for; Scully is about the most mild-mannered, nonconfrontational talk-show host in Washington. Asked about the incident by NEWSWEEK, Mary Matalin, the former White House aide who acts as an informal media and political adviser and part-time spinner for the Cheneys, explained that Mrs. Cheney was irked because the interview had been pitched by C-Span as an "at-home-with-the-Cheneys thing," not as a hard-news interview.

Cheney has brought on some of the negative talk by his grumpy-old-man act (though his disdain for the Washington chattering classes can be refreshing). And his family, while undeniably close and talented, can bristle with defensiveness. Cheney is routinely portrayed as untouchable, as remote as that Undisclosed Location he periodically repairs to. To some degree, this is a caricature. Cheney is actually a warm grandfather and is well liked by the staffers who appreciate his confidence and seriousness about their work. Still, a Bush campaign official concedes, "We didn't care enough about his image."

In some ways, Cheney's unwillingness to play the Washington glad-handing game is puzzling. A six-term congressman, the youngest-ever White House chief of staff (under Ford) and secretary of Defense (under Bush 41), he could not be more of a Washington insider. But Cheney is also 63 years old, and after four heart attacks, he knows that this Washington job is his last.

Taciturn and diffident, he has "never been the kind of politician to be a backslapper," his daughter Liz told NEWSWEEK. He has always been a policy wonk who enjoyed the details of legislating. After 9/11, Cheney could truthfully say that he was too busy fighting terrorism to make time for the sort of routine political hackwork normally expected of vice presidents. From time to time he would emerge to offer his dark premonitions, then vanish again. In January, in his first sit-down newspaper interview in two years, Cheney himself sardonically asked reporters from the L.A. Times and USA Today, "Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole? It's a nice way to operate, actually."

Cheney is lagging in some polls. His favorable rating in a New York Times/CBS poll last month stood at 21 percent, compared with 39 percent for President George W. Bush. But other opinion surveys show Cheney hanging on to a slight favorable/unfavorable edge (46 to 43 percent in the latest NEWSWEEK Poll). A senior Bush-Cheney campaign official shrugged off the polls as meaningless. And every White House and campaign official contacted by NEWSWEEK rejected the suggestion that Cheney might be dropped from the ticket.

The buzz is a "silly parlor game," says Matalin. "Why won't he be a, you know, Washington B.S. guy? Because he's not a Washington B.S. guy," she says. "He might be burned by you guys [the media], but they love him out there... He is a reassuring guy, not because he has grandchildren sitting on his lap, but because he just exudes depth and breadth and experience and competence."

Matalin made clear that no one, with the exception of the president, tells Cheney what to do. A month ago Cheney caused a stir when he told Sen. Pat Leahy to "f--- yourself" after Leahy came over to jolly him up on the Senate floor. (Cheney was mad at Leahy for making political hay over Cheney's ties to his old company, Halliburton.) Afterward, a senior White House official told news-week that Communications Director Dan Bartlett advised the Cheney team to "just make a joke of it." But Cheney did not. Rather, the veep affirmed to Fox News that he had told off Leahy and "felt better afterwards." In her interview with NEWSWEEK, Matalin doubted that Cheney had ever heard the White House official's advice. "I know what advice he was given because it came directly from me through Liz. And he already knew what he wanted to do," said Matalin.

It is significant that even Matalin communicated with Cheney "through Liz," the veep's 37-year-old daughter, who recently quit her job as a deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs to work on the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. Matalin readily acknowledges the central role played by the Cheney family. "They family together, they work together," she says. "It's a seamless operation." Liz Cheney says: "Family members can be completely honest. We're very direct with each other." That is not always true of Cheney staffers, who sometimes feel intimidated by going up against The Family.

The most blunt Cheney is Lynne, his partner since they were high-school sweethearts. Clever and well-spoken, Mrs. Cheney is a veteran of the culture wars. As chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the first Bush administration, she seemed to relish denouncing political correctness and "dumbing down" by liberal educators. Daughter Liz is personable, but tough-minded. The mother of four, she was back at work within a week of having the Cheneys' first grandson earlier this month. She has e-mailed Bush-Cheney officials as early as 5 a.m., and she was even seen working during Ronald Reagan's funeral, sending messages via BlackBerry from inside the National Cathedral. A staffer wrote back, "Where are you e-mailing from? I just saw you on TV."

According to Liz, she and sister Mary are very conscious of meshing well with the rest of the staff. "You want to make sure you stay in your lane and work as part of a team," she told NEWSWEEK. But other campaign officials have said they are sensitive to the fierce intensity of Mary, who handles operations and travel planning and may be the most protective of her father's interests.

Mary, 35, is a lesbian, a slightly awkward reality for a family identified with conservative family values. An M.B.A., she helped the Coors Brewing Co. handle a boycott by the gay community. (Gay-rights activists have targeted Mary, putting her face on a milk carton to pressure her to use her influence inside the Bush administration.) Last week, when the Senate voted down a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, Lynne Cheney spoke up to say that the issue should be a matter for the states to decide. Her remark was interpreted by some media outlets as breaking with the president, who had pushed the gay-marriage ban. Not so, says Matalin. "She was really carefully, artfully calibrating not to part with the president" while at the same time being "cognizant" of her role as a mother.

Cheney enjoys getting away from Washington, even when he's in it. At a dinner at the vice president's house about a year ago, he preferred to talk about Wyoming water rights more than politics; after dinner, the guests sang cowboy songs, like "Home on the Range." Cheney tends to slough off press carping--unless his integrity is questioned over Halliburton. Then he lashes out. (In fact, no real evidence has emerged yet to prove that Cheney lifted a finger to win contracts for Halliburton since he came back into government.)

With Election Day approaching, the veep is now campaigning regularly, not just in friendly places but in key battleground states. During the 2000 election, at a baseball game, he bridled at sitting down with the regular fans, in effect asking, "Do I have to?" But at a more recent trip to Yankee Stadium, he did sit down at field level--and was roundly booed (a ritual greeting for all politicians at the ballpark). These days Cheney even consents to "background" reporters, though he prefers talking to scribes who share his hawkish view on foreign policy. In her speech introductions, Lynne Cheney ticks off all the blue-collar jobs her husband once held, and notes that he even joined a union to work on the railroad.

Back in their Wyoming hometown of Casper, the Cheneys are still remembered as straight shooters. "Washington tears people apart. I don't know much about how things work out there," says Wyoming Secretary of State Joe Meyer, who was the co-captain of the football team with Cheney when Lynne was a cheerleader. "Maybe they had to change a bit to keep up with the town. But whenever I've talked to them, they seem exactly the same to me."

Cheney has been campaigning with his 10-year-old granddaughter Kate. He almost always ignores questions shouted by the press, but he answered one from a reporter who asked how the little girl was enjoying the trail. "She's doing great; she's an experienced campaigner," Cheney answered. "We'll get her little sisters out on the road before this is over with." The family business goes on.