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Debate contentious from the beginning

CLEVELAND — The Tuesday night debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Democratic Sen. John Edwards focused heavily on the decision to go to war in Iraq, and which side would better win the peace there.

In a serious 100 minutes, Cheney said his opponent had a lack of conviction, and Edwards said Cheney had a lack of credibility.

Cheney, 63, and Edwards, 51, each served traditional running mate roles: go on the attack against the other party's presidential nominee and stay there.

Cheney attacked Kerry as a tax raiser, defense cutter and waffler on war and peace.

"We have never criticized his patriotism," Cheney said, citing what he said were multiple positions that Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry has taken on Iraq. "What we have questioned is his judgment, and his judgment is wrong."

Edwards scored most when he alluded to current headlines: from Iraq, where a war with insurgents continues, and from home, where the economy has had trouble creating jobs since a 2001 recession.

"Mr. Vice President, I don't think the country can take four more years of this kind of experience," Edwards said, attempting to counter Cheney's far more substantial public service resume.

Cheney portrayed the Democrats as pessimists who had undergone election-year conversions to cover up Kerry's 20-year Senate voting record and Edwards' lack of experience.

But Edwards right off the bat signaled a combative evening when, referring to the optimistic assessment from Cheney and President Bush about the war in Iraq, he said: "Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people."

As he did through most of the night, Cheney sat stoically, displaying only a hint of bemused smile.

It kept on that contentious keel for most of the debate, as the two men sparred through arguments over Iraq, gay rights, health care and the economy.

Each man had high and low points:

Cheney pluses: He used Edwards' criticisms of Kerry during the Democratic primaries to score, citing Edwards' rap on the cost of Kerry's health-care plan.

The vice president also rapped Edwards for being absent for a majority of committee meetings about the nation's intelligence and for going AWOL on key votes since the Democrat began running for president two years ago.

"You have got one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate," Cheney said, turning to Edwards, who blinked in response. Cheney said he presided frequently over the Senate but "the first time I met you was when you walked on the stage tonight."

Edwards pluses: He continuously referred to a disconnect between the reality of the war in Iraq and the economy at home, and the Bush administration's optimistic rhetoric about both.

Edwards effectively referred to top Republican senators who have criticized the war in Iraq.

"It is not just me that sees the mess in Iraq," he said. "There are Republican leaders like John McCain, like Richard Lugar, like Chuck Hagel, who said Iraq is a mess and it is getting worse."

Edwards lows: Cheney hit Edwards for voting to allow Bush to go to war in Iraq, but now criticizing the war. "You voted for the war and then declared, wrong war, wrong place, wrong time," Cheney said. "You are not credible on Iraq because of the enormous inconsistencies that John Kerry and you have cited, time after time."

Cheney lows: When the conversation turned to Halliburton, the multinational company Cheney once headed, Cheney appeared most defensive. Edwards attacked the company for trading with both Iran and Iraq while Cheney led Halliburton, and for receiving no-bid contracts for postwar contracts in Iraq.