-- Vice President Cheney and John Edwards turned the vice presidential debate here Tuesday night into a courtroom drama.
The Democratic challenger, reprising his former career as a trial lawyer, challenged Cheney mercilessly, as if prosecuting a cagey and possibly untruthful defendant, all the while charming the jury -- the viewing public -- with a winning smile. The Republican incumbent, obviously disdainful of the prosecutor, responded by questioning the prosecutor's credentials, as if lecturing a dense student.
The jury is still out, of course. But Cheney and Edwards represented their sides forcefully in the 90-minute session, engaging in a sharp and frequently bitter exchanges. Unlike the presidential debate, the barbs were not only about Iraq and terrorism but also about more personal matters, such as Cheney's tenure at Halliburton Corp. and Edwards's attendance record in the Senate.
Both men had clear aims and pursued them relentlessly. Edwards sought to demonstrate that despite his inexperience, he has gravitas and a command of the issues. He attempted to score points by questioning Cheney's optimism about Iraq and his assertions of ties between Iraq and al Qaeda.
Cheney retaliated by charging that there are inconsistencies in Sen. John F. Kerry's views about the Iraq war and the allies' role there. As President Bush did in last Thursday's debate -- but perhaps more effectively -- the vice president vigorously defended the administration's record in Iraq and repeatedly turned the focus to Kerry's credibility.
But if they were evenly matched on the substance -- which for the first 45 minutes covered much of the same ground as the presidential debate -- their styles could not have been more at odds. Edwards grinned easily and gestured demonstratively; only a slight tremor in his hand at the debate's start betrayed his nerves. Cheney, elbows on the table, hands clasped, was serious and stern, delivering his barbs at Edwards acidly. It quickly became clear that Edwards would not be intimidated by Cheney and that Cheney would concede no ground -- leading to a sometimes explosive result.
In his prosecution of Cheney, Edwards, echoing many of the lines Kerry used against Bush last week, suggested that the administration is out of touch with reality. Edwards's tactic was to urge Americans to believe their own eyes, not the administration's words. As if appealing to viewers as the jury, he kept urging the audience to "listen carefully," as he accused Cheney of drawing false links between al Qaeda and former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, and of presenting an unrealistic portrait of success in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people," Edwards said at the first opportunity, contrasting the administration's "rosy scenario" with what Americans see on "television every single day."
Cheney, true to type, gave no ground, ignoring a question about former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer's assertion that there were insufficient troops in Iraq. "We've made significant progress in Iraq," he said, calling the situation "well in hand" and allowing no regrets. Cheney then delivered some blows Bush failed to land last week, saying the Democratic ticket was "for the war when the headlines were good and against it when the poll ratings were bad."
Repeatedly assaulting Kerry's shifting views on Iraq, Cheney said: "Your rhetoric, Senator, would be a lot more credible if there was a record to back it up. There isn't." Kerry, Cheney said, "doesn't display the qualities of somebody who has conviction." In a particularly stinging line, Cheney said that if Kerry and Edwards changed views under pressure from primary challenger Howard Dean, "How can we expect them to stand up to al Qaeda?"
Cheney repeatedly raised doubts, subtly and otherwise, about Edwards's qualifications. He repeatedly lectured Edwards, saying his figure on Iraq casualties was "dead wrong." Another time, Cheney responded: "It's hard to know when to start, there's so many inaccuracies there." When the two argued over the Iraq spending legislation, Cheney said contemptuously to Edwards, "You probably weren't there to vote for that."
Cheney made no effort to conceal his disdain when he contrasted his constitutional role with the senator from North Carolina. "Frankly, you have a record in the Senate that's not very distinguished," he said. Reminding Edwards that Cheney is the "presiding officer" of the Senate and there a weekly, he dismissed Edwards by saying: "The first time I ever met you was when we walked on the stage tonight." It was the third time they had met, Democrats pointed out.
Edwards, clearly expecting to be questioned on his experience, retorted that a long resume does not equal good judgment -- and offered his own blistering critique of Cheney's experience as vice president and earlier as a congressman.
"Millions of people have lost their jobs," he said. "Millions have fallen into poverty. Family incomes are down, while the cost of everything is going up. Medical costs up the highest they've ever been over the last four years. We have this mess in Iraq. Mr. Vice President, I don't think the country can take four more years of this kind of experience."
Edwards succeeding in getting under Cheney's skin by making half a dozen references to Halliburton, its "no-bid" government contracts and a probe into wrongdoing at the company. Cheney, given 30 seconds to respond, seemed exasperated. "It's going to take more than 30 seconds," he said. Told by moderator Gwen Ifill that was all he had, Cheney branded Edwards's charge a "smokescreen" with "no substance."
The two men softened their tone only briefly, when Edwards praised Cheney's love for his lesbian daughter. Cheney thanked Edwards, and when asked to compare himself with the senator said they had "more similarities than differences" in their hardscrabble backgrounds.
Vice presidential debates historically do little to affect an election's outcome, although this year could be different because Kerry's strong showing in last week's debate has lifted the Democrat back to parity with Bush in many polls, making it more likely that even small developments could shift the race. While that remains to be seen, the combination of Cheney, a sober former corporate CEO, and Edwards, a smiley former trial lawyer, certainly produced a more combustible mix than in the presidential debate.