Edwards vs. Cheney

October 05, 2004|By Jules Witcover

CLEVELAND - What's at stake in tonight's debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards?

If the past is any guide, probably not much. History shows that voters primarily make their decisions on what they think of the presidential nominees. But in close elections, a case can be made that attitudes toward the running mates sometimes can tip the scales.

Perhaps the strongest argument about whether the No. 2 candidate matters was made in 1960. Then, Lyndon B. Johnson was widely credited with helping Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy carry LBJ's home state of Texas and six other Southern states. Had Texas and Illinois gone for Richard M. Nixon, he would have been elected.

In 1968 and 1972, Mr. Nixon's running mate, Spiro T. Agnew, was so heavily denigrated as a divisive figure that Mr. Nixon seriously considered replacing him on the 1972 Republican ticket with John Connally of Texas. But he kept Mr. Agnew, and won a lopsided victory over Democrat George McGovern anyway.

In 1976, in President Gerald R. Ford's narrow loss to Jimmy Carter, fingers were pointed at Mr. Ford's running mate, Bob Dole, after a disastrous debate with Walter F. Mondale. Mr. Dole labeled World Wars I and II "Democrat wars" and triggered a stern rebuke from Mr. Mondale that was featured in most debate post-mortems.

But a more critical issue in that campaign was Mr. Ford's pardon of Mr. Nixon following the Watergate scandal. It was met with wide public criticism and even speculation about whether Mr. Ford had promised the pardon as part of Mr. Nixon's agreement to step down. Mr. Ford and Mr. Nixon both denied any such deal, but Mr. Ford later appeared to pay a price at the polls.

In 1988, George H. W. Bush came in for much abuse and even ridicule for choosing gaffe-prone Sen. Dan Quayle as his running mate. But the choice didn't hurt him, as he defeated Democratic Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts.

In 2000, both vice presidential nominees, Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman, got high debating grades from viewers, and some wags jested that they should have been the presidential nominees, not George W. Bush and Al Gore. But no suggestions were heard that Mr. Cheney, from tiny Wyoming, had swung the razor-thin margin of victory for Mr. Bush.

Mr. Cheney enters tonight's debate with Mr. Edwards widely regarded as one of the most influential vice presidents in history, if not the most influential. Early in the Bush-Cheney administration, before Sept. 11, 2001, converted Mr. Bush into a wartime president, one gag around Washington had it that if anything happened to Mr. Cheney, a man with a history of heart trouble, Mr. Bush would have to run the country.

Mr. Cheney is regarded now as the heavyweight in the Bush inner circle of neoconservatives that is defending the war in Iraq. For this reason, he can be expected tonight to take up Mr. Bush's argument in last week's debate with John Kerry that the war was necessary to remove the threat of Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Edwards, like Mr. Kerry, voted for the Mr. Bush resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq and then voted against Mr. Bush's $87 billion request to Congress for continued military action and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. He therefore can anticipate that Mr. Cheney will continue the same case that Mr. Bush brought against Mr. Kerry.

As for Mr. Edwards, he is likely to press Mr. Cheney on his categorical statements that Iraq had developed a nuclear capability, a notion challenged at unusual length Sunday in a New York Times investigative article.

But most interesting tonight may be the contrast in styles - Mr. Cheney dead-serious and unemotional, Mr. Edwards with his trial lawyer's sharp and penetrating analyses garnished with an optimism and smiling countenance.

Fence-straddling voters, however, are unlikely to look to this debate to settle their own indecision over Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry. That is, unless Mr. Cheney or Mr. Edwards fares so poorly as to reflect negatively on the judgment of the man who chose him to be second banana.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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