Cheney's resume is pitted against Edwards' charm

Running mates' debate looms larger this election

October 05, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The presidential campaign wends its way tonight into Cleveland, where two men whose personalities could not differ more sharply - Dick Cheney and John Edwards - will spend 90 minutes debating before millions of television viewers.

Vice presidential debates rarely mean much, but this one might be more important than most. Cheney is arguably the most consequential vice president in history and has wielded enormous influence over White House decisions, including the invasion of Iraq.

Tonight's debate at Case Western Reserve University comes as President Bush is looking to make up for a first debate performance against Sen. John Kerry that even his champions deemed lackluster. Cheney, at 63 with three decades of government experience and a command of policy, hopes to reclaim lost momentum, with Bush's sizable lead in many polls having vanished.

Sitting beside Cheney tonight at a desk facing a moderator will be Edwards, 51, Kerry's running mate and a man whose ability to connect with ordinary people might, Democrats hope, sway undecided voters.

To do so, Edwards must bridge an experience gap. His political resume consists of a single term in the Senate. Cheney has been White House chief of staff, a member of Congress and secretary of defense - heading the Pentagon in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Cheney's Washington background will be up against Edwards' skills as a former North Carolina trial attorney. Edwards was feared by opposing lawyers and built the reputation as a persuasive litigator who could own a jury.

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees that voters rarely pay attention to the vice presidential candidates, but says this year could be different.

"This race is so tight, anything can have an impact," Tenpas said, noting that 62 million viewers watched Bush and Kerry debate last week. "This is also one of the most powerful vice presidents ever. He has endured a lot of criticism and has been a lightning rod. Because he has an image of being so influential, this debate could have more of an impact."

Charlie Black, a longtime Republican party strategist, said: "The running mates don't matter that much - unless, that is, they make a mistake or get into the news in an unusual way." He added: "In general, voters' view is that both of the candidates chose competent people to run with. Voters checked that off their list and moved on."

Susan Rice, a foreign policy adviser with the Kerry/Edwards campaign, said that voters will "see a very knowledgeable, very savvy and very effective presentation when it comes to foreign policy."

According to officials in the Bush campaign, Cheney will pound on the familiar theme that Kerry is unprepared to be commander in chief because he is not clear about his convictions and has a record of being weak on national security.

"There is a consequence, as in the senator's record, to being wrong on defense issues and being one vote out of a hundred, but far different consequences and ramifications when those policies flow from the Oval Office," said Bush campaign adviser Mary Matalin. "Our point is to make the choice clear."

Matalin, formerly one of Cheney's closest aides in the White House, said the famously monotone vice president has been researching the issues as he has prepared for this evening. "He's a substance sponge," she said. "We're not trying to be fancy or funny or gimmicky. This is an opportunity to talk to the American people in the way the vice president typically does."

Kerry campaign aides said Edwards will try to exploit Cheney's ties to the company he used to run, Halliburton Corp., which won billions of dollars in no-bid contracts from the Pentagon to rebuild Iraq and which is under investigation for possibly overcharging. Bush campaign officials said they are bracing for such attacks, as they accused the Kerry camp of wrongly suggesting that Halliburton received favorable treatment and that Cheney played a role.

Joe Lockhart, a senior adviser in the Kerry campaign, said Edwards will also go after Cheney for asserting that Saddam Hussein had a relationship with the al-Qaida network. "John Edwards will look the vice president in the eye and say, `Why weren't you candid? Why didn't you level with us?'"

Lockhart added that Bush's performance in his first debate, especially the image of him grimacing at times, "put the vice president in a little bit of a box."

"It's pretty tough when you have to turn to Vice President Dick Cheney and say the American public wants to be cheered up," Lockhart said.

The balding Cheney is understated, carries an image of being gloomy and often pokes fun at himself for lacking charisma. For a full hour and a half, he will be beside Edwards, with his made-for-television hair and boyish smile, a man who has traveled the country delivering an effusive message that he will fight for ordinary Americans.

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