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The v.p. debate is tit-for-tat

In many respects, Tuesday night's debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Democratic challenger Sen. John Edwards was a repeat of the earlier exchange between President Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry. More references to Kerry's flip-flopping; more attempts to paint the war in Iraq as a floundering mess; more questions about faulty intelligence and the sluggish economy.

But unlike many vice presidential debates in recent history, the exchange between Cheney and Edwards was high-stakes given the dead heat in the presidential race. Cheney's challenge was to highlight his long experience in public life without coming off as gruff. Edwards, the political newcomer, needed to convince the American public that he has the intelligence and political savvy to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

For most of the nationally televised debate broadcast from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Cheney and Edwards sparred effectively. Cheney argued that the Bush administration has a plan in motion to keep the country safe, win the peace in Iraq and help the economy recover. Edwards countered that job losses, the federal deficit and health care costs have spiraled during the past 3 1/2 years and the Bush administration's many mistakes made in Iraq will make it increasingly difficult to finish the job.

The exchange differed from the first Bush-Kerry debate in that it was broader in scope and gave Edwards and Cheney more opportunities to highlight one another's Achilles' heels. However, many post-debate analysts claimed that both men mixed facts and fancy in the exchange.

For instance, Edwards took umbrage with the Iraq war contracts of Halliburton, the multinational company Cheney headed before he ran for vice president. Halliburton has been awarded no-bid contracts on reconstruction projects in Iraq, some of which have alleged cost overruns. However, congressional auditors recently concluded that the contracts met legal muster under bidding guidelines partly because Halliburton was the only company capable of doing some of the work, the Associated Press reported Tuesday night.

Cheney took Kerry to task for his voting record on taxes, claiming the Massachusetts Democrat voted for taxes 98 times. That's substantially fewer votes than the 350 previously claimed by the GOP — in error — but it's still misleading. The 98 votes included procedural votes on single tax increases or packages and occasions when Kerry voted to lower taxes but not to the extent Republicans wanted, the AP reported.

As any presidential campaign heats up, truth can become a casualty, evidenced by moments in Tuesday night's debate. Still, Americans should continue to watch the presidential debates, keep an open mind about the candidates but reserve healthy skepticism about the rhetoric that has become increasingly charged as the race has tightened in recent days.