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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Veep Showdown

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2004; 9:08 AM

Will tonight's Cheney-Edwards face-off have much of an impact on the campaign?

Put me in the skeptical camp.

_____More Media Notes_____
A Changing Political Landscape (The Washington Post, Oct 4, 2004)
Press Gives Kerry the Nod (washingtonpost.com, Oct 1, 2004)
The Future Is Now (washingtonpost.com, Sep 30, 2004)
The Ultimate Expectation (washingtonpost.com, Sep 29, 2004)
Debating the Debates (washingtonpost.com, Sep 28, 2004)
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The Cleveland confrontation will be fascinating to watch, given the vast differences, in everything from looks to speaking style, between the veep and the senator. It's the CEO vs. the trial lawyer, the smooth southerner vs. the taciturn westerner, the youthful, uplifting challenger vs. the battle-hardened Pentagon warrior.

One of my readers says the contest should be billed as Heartthrob vs. Heart Trouble.

But the veep contest rarely affects the outcome of the election -- except, arguably, in 1960, when LBJ helped JFK carry Texas -- and I doubt this year will be any different. Edwards hasn't even put North Carolina in play.

But rest assured, the debate will dominate the campaign news at least until Friday, when Bush and Kerry have a rematch in St. Louis. Is the Bush camp really "depending on Vice President Cheney to halt the ticket's slide in momentum," as The Washington Post put it? Well, maybe. If Cheney scores some points, it will provide a counterweight to all the positive press Kerry has been getting after his strong performance in Coral Gables.

In the short term, as The Note asks, "When does Bush win a news cycle? (Overcoming the 'another poll shows the race tight as Kerry surges' storyline will be tough. . . . )"

An Annenberg survey finds Cheney with a 37 percent favorable, 42 percent unfavorable rating, a margin it says is statistically insignificant. (But even breaking even is no prize.) For Edwards, it was 38 percent favorable and 31 percent unfavorable.

Edwards, and his handlers, have a decision to make. Does he put aside his Mr. Nice Guy persona and go after Cheney on the war, Halliburton and the veep's suggestion that Kerry's election would mean more terrorist attacks? Cheney, in the traditional No. 2 role, hasn't been reticent about portraying his opponents as weak on national security, and is likely to come out swinging. Can Edwards wield a hatchet without sacrificing his sunny appeal that hope is on the way? Will Cheney be rusty at this sort of thing, having last debated Lieberman four years ago, or will he use maximum rhetorical force?

The John-John ticket isn't working out as planned, says Boston Globe columnist Peter Canellos:

"The Edwards candidacy appeared to go wrong. The Republicans trained their guns of August on the Democratic ticket's military credibility, and Edwards could only stand by and scold the GOP for its negative campaigning: Clark or Gephardt would have had the credibility to turn the tables, reminding people that Vice President Dick Cheney received five separate deferments during the Vietnam War and that President Bush had trouble proving he met his National Guard obligations.

"Edwards, who also did not serve in the military and does not have national security experience beyond the Senate Intelligence Committee, could not make those points without inviting questions about himself. So Kerry was stuck fighting back on his own, an unattractive tooting of his own horn that only made him appear even more fixated on Vietnam.

"Worse, the Republican Party was making considerable use of Cheney's willingness to throw harsh blows, such as suggesting the United States would get hit by terrorists if Kerry were elected president, that would be unseemly coming from Bush. Whenever he makes those attacks, Cheney sacrifices his popularity for the good of the ticket, a trade-off he can afford since he has no presidential ambitions.

"Edwards, who demonstrated his own ambition by running for president after only four years in the Senate, does not seem willing to make such a sacrifice. Moreover, his entire political persona is built around his optimism, his very unwillingness to engage in negative campaigning."

In National Review, Steven Rhoads rips the North Carolinian:

"Edwards is a classic 'I-feel-your-pain' Democrat. But women already grant Democrats the 'I-feel-your-pain' issue. This year, they want to know whether the Democrats are tough enough to keep their families safe.

"Edwards looks boyish and sounds boyish. Vice President Cheney is no Schwarzenegger, but he reeks of gravitas and has a biography to back it up -- secretary of defense, White House chief of staff, CEO of a major corporation. Moreover, he sounds authoritative. Cheney went over the top in suggesting that a Kerry presidency would mean more terrorism, but Edwards was not a compelling critic. Edwards's indignation appeared weak in a boyish man speaking an octave higher than Cheney. A deep voice is an indicator of high testosterone and thus of manly strength."

This is how we're deciding who's most qualified to be a heartbeat from the presidency?

"On Tuesday night, Sen. Edwards will claim that if elected John Kerry and he will find and crush the terrorists. But for voters who want reassurance and manliness, he is unlikely to carry the day."

The Los Angeles Times sees a colorful but unimportant bout:

"Vice President Dick Cheney, balding, pudgy, taciturn, has wielded a bludgeon against Sen. John F. Kerry, battering the Democratic presidential hopeful in a barrage of attacks delivered in a low-key, somber, just-the-facts monotone.

"Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, well-coiffed, trim, effusive, has taken a scalpel to President Bush, slicing away at the Republican incumbent in a lawyerly, point-by-point assault, all honeyed accent and toothpaste smile . . .

"But few onlookers expect much of a lasting effect to occur when Cheney and Edwards meet in the only vice presidential debate of the fall contest. Historically, the match-up of number twos has done nothing to change the outcome in November."

The Wall Street Journal takes the opposite view: "Usually the stakes are lower for vice-presidential debates. But John Kerry's strong debate performance last week has given the Democratic ticket new momentum, and a good night for Mr. Edwards could provide a further boost. If Mr. Cheney does well, he could help Mr. Bush regain his footing as the president prepares to face Mr. Kerry again in St. Louis on Friday."

So: Tonight's debate is either really important or nearly meaningless. Got that?

The Nation has some advice for Edwards:

"As he prepares to debate Halliburton CEO turned Vice President Dick Cheney, Senator John Edwards would do well to study up on his Harry Truman. The buck-stops-here President had a word for war profiteering: 'treason.' He had another word for those political and business leaders who condone 'waste, inefficiency, mismanagement and profiteering' during a time of war: 'unpatriotic.'

"If John Kerry's running mate wants to have a greater impact in his debate with the Vice President -- which follows hard on the first presidential debate -- than did the woefully inept Joe Lieberman when he faced Cheney in 2000, Edwards has to drop the faux friendliness of the Washington elites whom Truman so disdained in favor of blunt talk about Cheney, starting with his Halliburton connections. . . .

"If Edwards brings Halliburton up during his Tuesday night face-off with Cheney in Cleveland, the Vice President will undoubtedly claim -- as he has whenever he's been challenged -- that he no longer has any connection with Halliburton. Edwards can counter with another of those blunt Trumanisms: 'liar.' The Vice President continues to receive money from Halliburton -- $178,437 in 2003 alone -- and a Congressional Research Service study has described the sort of deferred-salary payments he receives and the millions in stock options he retains as 'among those benefits described by the Office of Government Ethics as "retained ties" or "linkages" to one's former employer.'

"In other words, Cheney has a great big conflict of interest, and pounding away on it will go a long way toward exposing the crony capitalism that has been a hallmark of the Bush administration."

But let's not forget '08, says Roger Simon:

"While few voters cast their votes based on the vice presidential candidate, the debate could be pivotal to Edward's political future. If the Kerry/Edwards ticket wins on Nov. 2, Edwards's future is set, at least for four years. If it loses, however, Edwards's performance in the debate will go a long way in determining how the party views him as a presidential candidate in 2008. Will he be the main challenger to Hillary Clinton or just another losing vice presidential candidate like Joe Lieberman? . . .

"There is also the issue of Edwards's friendly nature. This was seen at one time as being a good counterpoint to Kerry's 'aloofness', but as the campaign has gotten down and dirty, the question is whether Edwards can be mean enough to face down Cheney's attack skills."

Is the Kerry surge over (after just four days)? The Washington Post has Bush in front by 5 points:

But the New York Times has it 47-47:

"Senator John Kerry came out of his first debate with President Bush having reassured many Americans of his ability to handle an international crisis or a terrorist attack and with a generally more favorable image, but he failed to shake the perception that he panders to voters in search of support, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

"Mr. Bush has had little success in the last month addressing some of the concerns voters have about his record, especially on his handling of the war in Iraq, the poll found. But he emerged from the confrontation with Mr. Kerry on Thursday night having maintained an advantage over his Democratic challenger on personal characteristics like strong leadership and likeability, as well as in the enthusiasm of his supporters.

"Four weeks from Election Day, the presidential race is again a dead heat, with Mr. Bush having given up the gains he enjoyed for the last month following the Republican National Convention in New York City, the poll found."

Here's the latest example of how opinion surveys color campaign coverage, from the Los Angeles Times:

"With his lead in the polls gone, President Bush today highlighted his signature domestic achievement, as he came to this swing state to sign legislation extending key provisions of his across-the-board tax cuts.

"He predicted that the extensions, like his earlier three tax cuts, 'will have good effects throughout the economy,' and called for making the tax cuts permanent and long-term tax code changes.

"Bush's pivot back to domestic issues came just four days before a town-hall style debate on Friday that is expected to be dominated by such issues as the economy and health care reform."

Should Kerry be pivoting to domestic issues? The New Republic's Noam Scheiber doesn't think so:

"The point isn't that Kerry had to establish credibility on Iraq. The point is that Bush is much more vulnerable on Iraq than the economy -- particularly since the current economic data just aren't that bad.

"Now, I understand that emphasizing the economy may pay dividends in specific battlegrounds, the most obvious being Ohio. But it just strikes me as weird to be moving away from the subject that got you back into the race, particularly at a time when outside events are making that subject particularly compelling as a campaign issue. Worse, the final jobs number before the election comes out Friday, the day of the second presidential debate. If you're Kerry, you're obviously much better insulated from good news on the jobs front if you've been talking about Iraq all week instead of how bad the economy is."

Andrew Sullivan says the prez was good on substance:

"Kerry did it the traditionally Republican way: he won on style. On points, the president presented as good a case as the facts currently allow. But from the very beginning, Kerry achieved something else. In tone and bearing, he seemed calm, authoritative, and, yes, presidential.

"Viewing the debate on a split screen, the difference was palpable. In stark contrast to the Bush-Gore debates, when Gore sighed and shrugged and fidgeted while his opponent spoke, this time it was Bush who was furrowing his brow, almost rolling his eyes and at the very beginning, looking snippy and peevish. He seemed -- in a word -- defensive, and his impatience gave the impression of a man who hasn't had anyone talk back to him in a very long time. The cocoon of unreality that has sealed him off for well over a year was suddenly visible.

"Worse, he seemed physically smaller and more mobile than Kerry -- if more emotionally alive. Their voices were contrasts too. I can see now for the first time why Kerry has a good reputation as a debater. It wasn't because he argued well. In fact, he parried poorly. He failed time and again to go in for obvious kills, failed to do what he really should have done, which is skewer Bush's conduct of the war, not his decision to launch it in the first place. But his tone was strong, clear, unwavering. And in presidential debates, manner is often as important as meat. In this debate, Kerry's strong voice and demeanor was particularly important because, by itself, it helped undermine Bush's assertion -- indeed his central argument -- that Kerry is unclear, wavering and unreliable."

Fred Barnes is already writing his Bush Comeback story:

"For John Kerry, the first presidential debate was an opportunity. He seized it and revived his flagging candidacy. For President Bush, the debate was a burden. He struggled through it, acting as if he had better things to do. But the second debate this Friday in St. Louis will find Bush in a different situation. Debating Kerry is no longer a burden. It's an opportunity for Bush to recover whatever ground he lost in the initial debate. Bush's history in campaign debates suggests his performance will improve this time. Despite the distractions of Iraq and the war on terrorism, his focus is likely to be concentrated solely on winning the debate--and a second White House term."

If you didn't make it through the NYT's 10,000-word Sunday piece on exaggerated prewar claims about Iraq's aluminum tubes, Editor & Publisher finds some self-criticism deep in the story:

"The writers observe that on Sept. 8, 2002, the top article on page one of their newspaper 'gave the first detailed account of the aluminum tubes. The article cited unidentified senior administration officials who insisted that the dimensions, specifications and numbers of tubes sought showed that they were intended for a nuclear weapons program.'

"That Sept. 8 story went on to quote an unnamed senior administration officials saying that the closer Saddam Hussein 'gets to nuclear capability, the more credible is his threat to use chemical and biological weapons. Nuclear weapons are his hole card.'

"Sunday's Times story dryly observes: 'The article gave no hint of a debate over the tubes,' adding, 'The White House did much to increase the impact of The Times article.' Vice President Cheney, in fact, specifically cited the Times story in stating, later that day, that he knew with 'absolute certainty' that Saddam was buying the tubes to build nuclear weapons. The Times reporters, however, do not identify the names of the authors of that crucial Sept. 8, 2002 article: Judith Miller and Michael Gordon."


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