HAGERSTOWN - The sign out front of the Four Points Sheraton reads, "Welcome, we have been expecting you," but the entrance to the Western Maryland hotel was anything but inviting yesterday.
A snaking line of men and women dressed in the blue, black and gray colors of corporate culture had to pass through a metal detector or - if they triggered an R2-D2-like beep - undergo a hand wand inspection by security guards who were as serious as airport baggage screeners.
More than 700 people endured the screening yesterday to catch a glimpse of Vice President Dick Cheney, who spoke at a breakfast fund-raiser for U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett's re-election campaign. The event raised more than $150,000 for the Republican congressman, who is seeking a seventh term and is being challenged by Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle in the GOP primary.
The appearance of Cheney in the conservative 6th Congressional District, which spans seven counties from Western Maryland to Harford County, came as a welcome surprise to many attendees, who said they had jokingly begun to associate the seldom-seen vice president with the term "undisclosed location."
Political observers said Cheney's visit signaled the emergence of an increasingly public profile that will continue to evolve as the presidential campaign calendar flips toward November.
"He is emerging right now after a certain amount of speculation that he was going to get dumped" from the 2004 presidential ticket, said Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Norris was referring, among other things, to the political damage from Cheney's association with his former company, Halliburton, and allegations that the corporation has overcharged the federal government.
"The mere fact that he's visible after several years of invisibility also says, 'Guess what boys and girls? There's an election going on,'" Norris said. "It will be interesting to listen to what he has to say."
In a stuffy, chandelier-crowned ballroom yesterday, Cheney delivered a 20-minute speech that was punctuated by applause 15 times as he praised the Bush administration's success in creating jobs, improving the economy and winning the war on terror.
"In the war on terror, we have only one option, and that's to carry the fight to the enemy," Cheney said. "As the president has said, we had a choice: either take the word of Saddam Hussein, who had used weapons of mass destruction and murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people, or take action to defend the American people. Faced with that choice, George W. Bush will defend America every time."
"I've seen the president before at different functions, but it's a real nice change of pace to see the vice president out and being active," Frederick Alderman Joe Baldi said.