CLEVELAND — In a sharp face-to-face exchange in the opening parry of the vice presidential debate, Sen. John Edwards accused Vice President Dick Cheney of "not being straight with the American people" about Iraq, prompting Cheney to vigorously defend the administration's record on foreign policy and to challenge the national security credentials of the Democratic ticket.
On the invasion of Iraq, the reasons for the war, and the reconstruction, Edwards repeatedly accused the administration of exhibiting bad judgment, and wasted no time raising a signature argument Cheney made before the war. "Mr. Vice President, there is no connection between the attacks of September 11th and Saddam Hussein," Edwards said in the early minutes of the showdown.
Cheney replied: "The senator has got his facts wrong. I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11, but there's clearly an established Iraqi track record with terror."
The debate, the only one between the vice presidential contenders, was not expected to dramatically shift a narrowing race between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry. But both sides saw a chance to gain momentum just 28 days before the election, with soaring television ratings for the first presidential debate and exploding new-voter registration rolls reflecting record levels of interest in the campaign.
And though vice presidential debates are usually a footnote to the campaign, the drastic differences between the austere Cheney, 63, and the sunnier Edwards, 51, generated unusual buzz and suggested a larger audience than usual might tune in to the showdown at Case Western University. Bush and Kerry both broke away from campaigning to watch. The campaigns sent some of their top staff to "spin" thousands of reporters covering the event, fresh off a presidential debate that saw negative impressions about Bush quickly gel in the hours afterward.
Gay marriage to Mideast
The wide-ranging debate touched on issues from gay marriage to Middle East peace and saw some lively exchanges between the two candidates. Though there were some deeply personal moments — Edwards noted that Cheney has a daughter who is a lesbian — much of the debate was highly substantive, and both men jumped in to disagree with each other at times.
Both Edwards and Cheney were asked to explain past statements from the campaign trail. Asked whether he believed Kerry would endanger the United States, Cheney answered cautiously. "I don't believe he has the qualities we need in a commander in chief because I don't think, based on his record, he would" make the country safe.
Asked about Halliburton Corp., the energy company he once ran, Cheney said he could answer, but it would take longer than the 30 seconds allotted.
"Well, that's all you've got," moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS replied. Cheney dove in, accusing Democrats of raising the question of Halliburton only as a distraction.
The first question of the night centered on Iraq, following criticism from the former civilian head of the U.S. occupation in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, that too few troops had been committed to the invasion. Bremer, in comments reported Tuesday, said the United States and Iraq had "paid a big price" for failing to secure the country with sufficient troop levels, remarks that gave Democrats fresh ammunition for their argument that Bush has mishandled the war. Republicans countered that troop movements were decided by military commanders, not political leaders.
Ifill asked Cheney about the remarks, as well as a statement by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a day earlier that there is no evidence of a tie between Iraq and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Cheney quickly shifted the debate back to the war on terror itself.
"What we did in Iraq was exactly the right thing to do. If I had it to recommend all over again, I would recommend exactly the same course of action," Cheney said.
In a separate answer, responding to allegations that he implied a link between Iraq and Sept. 11, Cheney said he had argued that Tehran was a threat. "The point is that that's the place where you're most likely to see the terrorists come together with weapons of mass destruction, the deadly technologies that Saddam Hussein had developed and used over the years," Cheney said. Referring to Kerry and Edwards, he continued: "Now, the fact of the matter is, the big difference here, Gwen, is they are not prepared to deal with states that sponsor terror. They've got a very limited view about how to use U.S. military forces to defend America."
Cheney went on to a more personal attack — taking Edwards to task particularly over his Senate record, which he deemed undistinguished. Cheney, as president pro tempore of the Senate, said he had not ever met the North Carolina senator until Tuesday night.
"That was a complete distortion of my record," Edwards said in response.
In the same debate four years earlier, Cheney disarmed his rival with a congenial friendliness, showing no signs of the dark pessimism Democrats had hoped for in the showdown with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman. Heading into Tuesday night, Edwards prepared with a similarly muted performance in mind. And Democrats, eager to get under the vice president's skin, gave a prominent seat in the audience to Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont — whom Cheney had insulted with a profane remark on the Senate floor.
Lynne Cheney and Elizabeth Edwards, the two candidates' wives, were led into the event first. Cheney and Edwards followed shortly thereafter and sat, joined by Ifill of PBS, in complete silence for almost five minutes as they waited for the event to begin.
Kerry has benefited dramatically from the first presidential debate last week; his poll numbers rose — and his campaign has exhibited newfound confidence — since a performance that most commentators said outshone the president's. Yet if Kerry won the first debate, he now risks failing to meet the expectations he raised last time when he and Bush square off again Friday night in St. Louis — one reason Kerry downplayed the significance of the debates altogether on the campaign trail Tuesday.
"These debates, people talk, about, sort of, you know, win-lose, that's not what it's about," Kerry said during a campaign stop in Iowa. "These debates are about an opportunity for the American people to kind of look into our souls a little bit and check our guts, and I like that, because all I'm doing is going in there and telling the truth. And the truth is what makes the difference for the American people."
Kerry attack on Cheney
At a news conference hours before the debate, Kerry did his part to portray Cheney as dishonest, accusing the vice president of misleading the public about a connection between former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the attacks of Sept. 11. "Behind the scenes in all of these discussions and presentations is Dick Cheney," Kerry said. "It's time for the vice president to be accountable and to answer the questions that have arisen."
Both sides hoped the debate would cement negative opinions about the other side.
Cheney, a veteran of the Nixon, Ford and first Bush administrations, has evolved into arguably the most controversial figure in the administration. Lambasted by critics over his secretive energy meetings and his ties to the Halliburton, Cheney is often portrayed as the dark mastermind behind the most conservative Bush policies, particularly the invasion of Iraq.
Edwards, a successful trial lawyer before running for Senate six years ago, has been depicted by critics as a policy lightweight. And Republicans have argued that trial lawyers are part of the reason why medical costs are so high, saying frivolous lawsuits drive up malpractice insurance and doctors out of business.
Set in northeastern Ohio, the debate took place at the front line of this year's election, in a state with 20 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. Although every modern Republican president has won Ohio, it remains hotly contested, its depressed economy and high unemployment giving Kerry an opening among disgruntled voters.