It was the giant armadillo vs. the baby cougar. The split screen wreaked its havoc on the Cheney-Edwards debate Tuesday night. If you'd been listening on the radio John Edwards would have won by a pencil, but in a 90-minute two-shot the gravitas gap was a problem for him.

Dick Cheney's bullet head and nuanced basso anchored his thoughts to his words and filled out the frame of the screen, while beside him Edwards bobbed like a tethered balloon. All that gulping from that damn blue mug. All that endless scribbling on the yellow pad. What was he writing at such copious length? A symphony? A movie proposal? If moderator Gwen Ifill had been his teacher she'd have been asking: "John, have you taken your Ritalin today?"

The Cheney team was smart to decree the VP debate had to happen from plush swivel chairs. The veep always operates from a rumbling crouch, but Edwards is not a guy who does well at sitting still.

The best moment was Cheney's appreciation of Edwards's fuzzy statements about the veep's gay daughter, Mary. Bless Cheney for not launching into some schmaltzy "Dr. Phil" testimonial of his own. By showing restraint, he displayed a humanity and judgment that looked -- well, presidential. Edwards did best when he bore down hard and fearlessly on the sacred cow of Cheney's long record of service, which he repackaged as a chronicle of embarrassing votes, and when he refused to let go of the VP's whopping untruth in the opening minutes that he had never linked Saddam Hussein to 9/11.

Democrats in New York were underwhelmed by Edwards, who they hoped, unrealistically, would administer a David E. Kelley-like lawyerly coup de grace. They wanted another rush like the Kerry-Bush debate. Their man's undisputed win in Miami gave them their cojones back, and they wanted to feel that testosterone surge again.

Democrats need the affirmation of "winning" more than Republicans do. The Republican apparat is so good at marginalizing Democrats as "out of the mainstream" that when things look dark they start to believe it themselves. If their candidate drops in the polls, they sit around making jokes about moving to Canada. They spend long, myopic hours at the computer pulling 3,000-word, statistics-laden diatribes about Bush off the Web and e-mailing them around to a cast of thousands with "This says it all" in the subject line.

But if Edwards got a B from his own side, the commentariat's overall consensus was that it was close to a wash, and Democrats were pleased by the larger, more damning mystery that Cheney's self-assurance reinforced for the electorate -- namely, the contrasting shallowness and intellectual feebleness displayed in Miami by his boss, G.W. Bush.

That's what's so fascinating about the debates. Sometimes they show you depths you hadn't noticed, sometimes they take you back to where you started. The first debate was a thriller because it threw the perception game into a new round. Stripped out of the controlled arenas and leadership cameos crafted for him since 9/11, Bush free-fell back into the old pit of seeming a simple man up past his bedtime. Tuesday night Cheney reclaimed the backstage-president role the administration has taken such pains to bury.

John Kerry, meanwhile, free from the barrage of flip-flop pentimento, suddenly got himself a whiff of Mount Rushmore. He will not just rebuild our alliances, restore respect, blah blah wheeze wheeze -- he WILL hunt down and KILL the terrorists. The former stick-in-the-wind was planted so firmly he seemed to grow out of the podium like an oak tree.

For Democrats, one nice corollary to Kerry's success in Miami was that it dispelled, for the moment at least, the sense of the president being aided by unbeatable voodoo. Karen Hughes, Bush's human Humvee, shifted into TV four-wheel-drive the minute the debate was over, talking about her boss's "heart" and "great strength." But there was a churning, disheveled edge to it all. Karl Rove, who only hours before had been the unseen Merlin who controls the world, could be seen hanging around the emptying spin room under his placard like any other paid political flack.

Cheney found a more primitive way to bluff with a bad hand. Bonding squatly with his armchair, he exuded what historian Simon Schama calls "the magical glue of doctrinal infallibility." In a culture of blatherers, Cheney intimidates with his silences, his stingers, and above all his awesome capacity to stare down the evidence and assert that black is white.

This week we have seen three key players retreating from their own assertions about Iraq. One day before the veepbate, Donald Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations that there was no hard evidence of a link between Saddam and al Qaeda, saying with that debonair, crinkly smile of his that he couldn't keep track of these migrating intelligence reports -- only to recant hours later with a statement about being "regrettably misunderstood." And just the morning of the debate it became known that former ambassador Paul Bremer has been out on the dinner circuit excusing the chaos of postwar Iraq by declaring "we didn't have enough troops on the ground," thereby contradicting his own party line on "Meet the Press" in July 2003.

Then there's the increasingly hapless Condi Rice. Confronted by the New York Times about her failure to tell us that her assertions about Saddam's nuclear capacity had already been debunked by experts, she explained it wasn't up to her to "referee disputes in the intelligence community" -- which is actually part of her job description as national security adviser.

Cheney, by contrast, is not retreating anywhere. Hulking, controlled, unrepentant, he's the leading exponent of the power of the glower. Challenged by Ifill about Rumsfeld's and Bremer's admissions, he insisted, "If I had it to recommend all over again I would recommend exactly the same course of action."

Cheney doesn't pass hot potatoes. He eats them, with plenty of sour cream.

(c)2004, Tina Brown

Vice President Cheney, left, reacts to a point made by Sen. John Edwards in Tuesday's debate. In contrast to Edwards's hyperactive style, Cheney was all steady gravitas.