Republican National Committee leader defends Cheney

As Vice President Dick Cheney was making his first public statement about shooting a friend in a hunting accident, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman was in Washington state defending the Bush administration's response.

"This is a private accident, and what the vice president was focused most on was making sure that the gentleman involved got the care needed and that his family and others were informed," Mehlman said.

Cheney's television appearance came after even some Republicans criticized the slow, limited response from the vice president and the White House to Cheney's accidental shooting of hunting partner Harry Whittington.

Mehlman said he would not second-guess the decisions.

"I think that the public certainly wants to know immediately about what the vice president's positions are on important issues and what's happening in the world," he said. "But if the vice president is involved in a hunting accident, or [Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid had a stroke or when the president choked on a pretzel — all of those are things that happened — certainly the public has a right to know, but I'm not sure I'd read a lot of politics into them.

"These are human beings that sometimes accidents and other things happen to."

Mehlman was in the state Wednesday to meet with Republican legislators in Olympia, headline a fundraiser for GOP Senate candidate Mike McGavick and deliver a speech at the King County Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner in Seattle. At least 400 people attended the dinner, which included an auction.

Mehlman's visit comes as Republicans nationally try to shore up President Bush's core supporters among conservatives, the Iraq war continues to be problematic politically and the D.C. lobbying scandal has put the GOP on the defensive about ethics and corruption.

"If Republicans are guilty of illegal or inappropriate behavior they ought to pay for it and they ought to deal with the consequences of it," Mehlman said.

He said the Republican-controlled Congress should pass tighter lobbying restrictions and change the process that allows members to earmark appropriations in budget bills, one of the favored avenues of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Mehlman disputes that the scandal is primarily a Republican problem, although Abramoff climbed to power on the basis of his GOP connections. In addition, 100 percent of the lobbyist's personal contributions went to Republicans.

"So, do I think Republicans can just run a status quo election and win? No. We've got to be the party of reform, and we have to offer a real choice in this election," he said.

State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said Washington voters will not buy Republicans as reformers.

"They control Congress. They control the White House. They've made the decisions that led us into scandal," he said. "How can they claim they are going to reform themselves?"

Pelz also disagreed with Mehlman's argument that Cheney's hunting incident was a "private accident."

"When you shoot somebody, you give them medical attention and then you call the police," Pelz said. "He failed to do that, and it's special treatment for the vice president."

Pelz compared Cheney's actions in Texas to those of Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who has been criticized for swimming away from a 1969 car accident and leaving behind a young woman who drowned.

"Quail-gate is Cheney's Chappaquiddick," Pelz said. "He didn't swim across the bay. He got in his Hummer and drove back to the ranch."

David Postman: 360-943-9882