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Behind the plan, the VP who's everywhere

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For clues to Dick Cheney's influence in Washington, consider two things. His lunch schedule. His office space.

Tuesdays, the vice president dines with Senate Republicans on the Hill. Wednesdays, he chews over policy at the Pentagon with the president's national security team. Thursdays, it's a private hour-long lunch with his boss in the West Wing - no staff present.

To accommodate this peripatetic schedule, he has to have a space to park his briefcase. In addition to the ceremonial office in the Old Executive Office Building, he has spacious quarters steps from the Oval Office. But he's also dusted off the vice president's office in the Senate, and moved into a second Capitol Hill hideaway just off the House floor - unprecedented for a vice president.

The point is, Mr. Cheney is ubiquitous. He's not just overlord of the administration's new energy plan; he's everywhere, and into everything. Presidential observers say he's involved in White House business to a degree not seen before, and, because of the uniqueness of the circumstances, not likely to be seen again. In fact, some say Cheney shouldn't be regarded as vice president alone.

"The mistake with Cheney is to treat him as a vice president, when he's operating well beyond the envelope of what a vice president could expect of the job," says Paul Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution here. "I like to think of Cheney as an amalgam of four or five jobs that I don't think we're going to see again anytime soon."

Chief of staff. Vice president. Head lobbyist. Mentor to a commander in chief with very little Washington experience. That's four jobs right there, in which Cheney is serving George W. Bush exceptionally well, analysts say. His ability to assume different roles has been key to getting the administration up and running.

But there is a downside to this ubiquity, and that is the public perception that President Bush is merely mouthing whatever his No. 2 tells him to say. According to an April Gallup poll, 43 percent of Americans believe other people in the administration are making decisions the president should make. That's down from 52 percent in January, but still troublesome, says presidential scholar Martha Kumar.

White House officials, including Cheney himself, are eager to refute this perception. They say Bush is firmly in control.

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