WASHINGTON – The indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s top adviser comes as the latest blow for a White House already struggling to regain its footing after a series of crises.

But political experts predicted Friday that Lewis Libby’s indictment on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and false statements in the investigation of a CIA operative’s unmasking wouldn’t permanently weaken the vice president.

Often described as the most powerful vice president in history, Cheney is in no jeopardy of losing his pivotal role in crafting foreign and domestic policy for the Bush administration, they said.

“I don’t think that this president is going to push the eject button on this vice president,” said Marshall Wittmann, a one-time Republican congressional aide who has crossed over to the Democratic Leadership Council.

Still, he added, “Cheney was thought to be the CEO, the person who was ultimately the wise man of this administration, the graybeard. Now he’s turning out to be somewhat of a significant liability.”

The controversy highlights anew an uncomfortable area for the White House: the use of intelligence in the run-up to an Iraq war championed by Cheney, Libby and their administration allies.

The 22-page indictment sketches a portrait of Libby scrambling to contact the State Department, CIA and others in the White House to learn more about Joe Wilson and his wife, CIA official Valerie Plame, even before the former ambassador went public with his criticism of the administration’s case for war.

The indictment “is deeply disconcerting and a stain on President Bush, Vice President Cheney and the administration,” said Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., in comments echoed by other congressional Democrats.

Critics contend administration officials divulged Plame’s identity to punish Wilson or to chill future dissenters – motives special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald declined to confirm Friday.

The prosecutor did make clear, however, that he viewed the matter as a serious breach of national security.

Cheney discussed with Libby on June 12, 2003, his knowledge that Plame worked at the CIA, though his aide had apparently learned that information separately a day earlier. And as Air Force Two returned from Norfolk, Va., in July 2003, Libby and others in the vice presidential entourage discussed strategy for dealing with reporters asking about Wilson, the indictment says.

“Ultimately, the question comes down to: What did the vice president know, and when did he know it?” Wittman said.

Asked about any role Cheney may have played in outing Plame, Fitzgerald told reporters: “We make no allegation that the vice president committed any criminal act.”

The episode may serve to underscore a public perception that already exists about Cheney, some political experts said.

“In instance after instance, Cheney’s been portrayed as this shadowy, sinister figure who has disproportionate influence over not only foreign policy decision-making but all White House decision-making,” said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist.

The indictment of a Cheney confidant “does reinforce that negative image and puts him on the defensive,” Buchanan added, though he predicted that President Bush would not distance himself from his vice president.

While the immediate public fallout isn’t good, the Libby indictment won’t trip up the White House, said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma who served in the House leadership with Cheney. “I think it’s going to affect (Cheney) very little. I think it’s going to affect his standing with the president even less,” he said.

Texas A&M presidential historian George Edwards agreed, though he pointed out that Friday’s developments came at a singularly bad time for a White House reeling from its response to Hurricane Katrina, an increasingly unpopular war, high gas prices and a rift with conservatives over Harriet Miers’ ill-fated Supreme Court nomination.

“No administration wants its officials with their hands in the air,” Edwards said. “All it does is again reaffirm the growing suspicion that things are out of control and that Bush is not up to the job.”

The only way Cheney faces any problems from his close adviser’s run-in with the special prosecutor, the political experts said, is if new details of the vice president’s involvement emerge.

Libby resigned Friday, the day the indictments were announced.

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