VP Hopefuls Go Toe-to-Toe in Debate

WASHINGTON -- Once again, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney sought Tuesday night to come to the rescue of a member of a political family that he has served so loyally for nearly a generation.

For most of the 90-minute encounter with his rival, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, Cheney tried to reassure Republicans unsettled by President George W. Bush's debate performance against Senator John Kerry last week, while hammering home the case against Kerry that polls now suggest Bush failed to make.

But if Cheney's task was big Tuesday night, his path was not as easy as it was in 2000, when he faced a genial and unchallenging opponent, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, rather than the combative trial lawyer who sat at his left elbow Tuesday. Again and again, Edwards -- politely and deferentially referring to his opponent as "Mr. Vice President" -- challenged Cheney's attempt to discredit Kerry's views and record, poking away at Cheney and Bush.

As the challenger going up against a seasoned vice president, Edwards needed to demonstrate a sense of authority, his aides said, and to convince the nation that he could step into the presidency at a moment's notice. For much of the night, he offered a competent, calm performance as he sought to turn back challenges to his experience.

"Senator, you have a record in the Senate that is not very distinguished," Cheney said at one point, looking sternly at Edwards as he proceeded to scold him for missing votes in the Senate. It was 11 minutes before Cheney attacked Kerry.

Indeed, if Cheney came into the debate seeking to reverse the slippage the Republicans have witnessed since Bush's answers and demeanor Thursday night distressed many supporters, Edwards succeeded in blocking him for much of the night, although certainly not all. Instead, viewers watched two stylistically different but clearly accomplished politicians in an intense and often grim debate, and loyalists of both parties can be forgiven for thinking that the No. 2 candidates were more slashing debaters than Kerry and Bush.

Cheney startled Edwards when he suggested that both Edwards and Kerry had tailored their positions on the war in Iraq -- in particular, by voting against an $87 billion appropriation that included financing for U.S. troops in Iraq -- in response to the initial power of the candidacy of Howard Dean.

"Now, if they couldn't stand up to the pressures that Howard Dean represented, how can we expect them to stand up to al-Qaida?" Cheney asked.

But Edwards was on the attack from the moment the moderator, Gwen Ifill, turned to him, defending Kerry even as he attacked Bush and Cheney. He underscored what has been the central challenge Democrats have offered to the Iraq war: that it was a distraction from the war against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.

"Mr. Vice President, there is no connection between the attacks of Sept. 11th and Saddam Hussein," he said. "And you've gone around the country suggesting that there is some connection."

Vice presidential debates have at times turned out to be treacherous terrain, especially for anyone whose ambitions go beyond the office of vice president, a list that this year starts and ends with Edwards. Politicians who were permanently defined by a moment in a vice presidential race include Dan Quayle, who was told by his opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, that he was no John Kennedy, and Bob Dole, whose remarks about "Democrat wars" cemented his reputation as being mean.

That was presumably of little concern to Cheney, who has made no secret that his political career will end whenever he leaves office. But win or lose, Edwards is looking to run for president again. He is well aware that Lieberman's bid for the presidency this year was hampered by memories of his performance in 2000.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, Edwards did to help Kerry win the White House in November. But on Tuesday evening, Kerry clearly had the advocate he was looking for when he chose this young-looking and relatively inexperienced lawyer from North Carolina to join his ticket; and that is something that Democrats are apt to remember for a long time.