Iraq dominated the vice presidential debate from its opening moments, as Vice President Cheney asserted that deposed dictator Saddam Hussein had "an established relationship with al Qaeda" that justified the U.S.-led invasion, a claim that caused Democrat John Edwards to charge that Cheney is "still not being straight with the American people."

Bridling, Cheney said Edwards "has his facts wrong" in claiming that the administration has argued that Iraq was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But Cheney insisted that there is an "Iraqi track record" of working with terrorist groups, and that he and President Bush made a reasonable decision to go to war because the country represented "the most likely nexus between terrorists and weapons of mass destruction."

The first several exchanges during the debate, televised nationally from Case Western Reserve University, set a tough and slightly snappish tone. Cheney said Edwards and Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry have a weak record on national security. Edwards several times accused the Republican ticket of deliberately distorting his and Kerry's positions, and also falsely telling the American people that things are on the right track in Iraq.

"The reality is that you and George Bush continue to tell people . . . that things are going well in Iraq, the American people don't need us to explain this to them," Edwards said, echoing what Kerry said during last week's first presidential debate. "They see it on their television every single day. We lost more troops in September than we lost in August, lost more in August than we lost in July, we lost more in July than we lost in June."

Whatever its electoral consequences in a tightening presidential race, the Edwards-Cheney match-up had been anticipated for months for its promise of crackling good theater. American politics in recent years has rarely offered a more vivid stylistic and substantive contrast than presented by these two men.

Cheney, a veteran of the executive branch and the corporate boardroom, has little taste for political theater. He was up against a first-term senator from North Carolina and a former trial lawyer who became noticed largely because of his youthful looks and his flair as a performer. Cheney and Bush are both skeptics of trial lawyers and believe in litigation reform. Edwards made his name and fortune reaping large verdicts for aggrieved plaintiffs.

For all the differences, the format was calculated to keep the fireworks subdued. At the insistence of the Bush campaign's debate negotiators, the encounter took place with both men seated at a table, with PBS's Gwen Ifill moderating. Republicans feared a standing format would give Edwards a greater ability to summon the dramatic techniques he employed in the courtroom.

The two men shook hands as they took the stage, but, by agreement, not once the debate began at 9 p.m. For five minutes before the questioning began, Cheney and Edwards sat stonily at the table, saying nothing to one another.

Earlier in the day, Cheney flew to Cleveland and kept a low profile, while an upbeat Edwards readied himself for his showdown at a partisan town meeting in nearby Parma, Ohio.

While vice presidential debates have rarely -- if ever -- affected the outcome of a presidential election, experts predicted this one could be different as the two candidates would answer 16 questions about foreign policy and domestic issues.

"Under normal circumstances they are not that important, but this race is so close," said Timothy Walch, a vice presidential scholar at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. "We're contrasting a man with experience and gravitas with the boy evangelist. Edwards is better on TV -- more passionate and more articulate than the vice president."

Walch also predicted that the debate would be a far cry from the sedate encounter between Cheney and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) four years ago. "The gloves will be off. The only thing you will not see at that table is arm-wrestling," he said.

To start the tussle early, the Edwards campaign invited a Cheney nemesis -- Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) -- to sit in the second row of the hall during the debate in an apparent attempt to rattle the vice president. Cheney recently made headlines when he uttered an obscenity to Leahy on the Senate floor. A source on the Kerry-Edwards campaign said the Bush-Cheney team has complained about Leahy's special seating.

At the town meeting, Edwards repeatedly stressed the "stark contrast" between himself the vice president -- a theme that his aides say he planned to drive home during the 90-minute debate.

"I don't now have the same view of the world as Dick Cheney, and that's a good thing," a smiling Edwards said to much applause.

Edwards, who spent the summer on the campaign trail delivering a positive message, continued his shift into attacking his opponents as politicians who favor the rich, who protect oil companies at the expense of consumers and whose policies have not considered Middle America.

"When I walk into that debate tonight and I sit down, I am there for you," said Edwards, who had never participated in a one-on-one debate before.

Edwards also signaled that he would pick up where John F. Kerry left off at last week's presidential debate in assailing the administration for its handling of the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism.

"Most people in the country, if you ask them what they would do in a terrorist attack, they have no idea," he told the crowd of several hundred. "It's been three years, three years and they have no idea what they're supposed to do if a terrorist attack were to occur."

Edwards noted that there is not a "unified" terrorist watch list. "So people come in and out of the country . . . and we're not even operating off of the same terrorist watch list," he said. "How long does it take to figure this out? I mean, really it's not that complicated."

The Bush-Cheney campaign hoped that a strong performance by the vice president could blunt the momentum the Kerry campaign has appeared to have since last week's presidential debate.

Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who played Edwards during practice sessions with Cheney, said that in response to attacks by Edwards, the vice president would try to keep the exchange focused on issues. On the economy, Cheney will say "the economy is growing," Portman said. "In the case of challenges, he wants to bring prosperity to all corners of America that's not there now."

Political strategists said the challenge for Cheney would be to maintain an even-keeled and pleasant demeanor against an opponent who is considered a much more telegenic performer. Surveys indicate that the American public has a more favorable view of Edwards going into the debate. The University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey shows that just as many people have an unfavorable view of Cheney as do a favorable view. The same survey showed that more people had a favorable view of Edwards than an unfavorable view.

The Edwards campaign was bracing itself for Cheney to diminish Edwards's youthful appearance and minimal political experience. Previewing that possible line of attack, Bush-Cheney manager Ken Mehlman said on CNN that Edwards was chosen as Kerry's running mate only for his "image."

Edwards spokesman Mark Kornblau said: "He expects [the attack] at every turn." And his response? "We've seen what your kind of experience can do," Kornblau offered as a comeback.

Vice President Cheney and Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards shake hands before their debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS is in the foreground.Vice President Cheney, left, and Democratic challenger John Edwards disagree over the United States' Iraq policies.