Cheney, Edwards clash on Iraq war

Sharp exchanges over leadership, Halliburton

Lone vice presidential debate

Election 2004

The debates

October 06, 2004|By Paul West and David L. Greene | Paul West and David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CLEVELAND -- For 90 minutes last night, Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards blistered each other in a highly acrimonious and sometimes personal debate that mirrored the harshly negative tone of the tight 2004 presidential contest.

Edwards, a freshman North Carolina senator in the biggest moment of a brief political career, tried to put Cheney, one of the most experienced men in government, on the defensive over the Bush administration's leadership in Iraq and domestic policies that, he said, favor powerful interests over the needs of ordinary people.

"A long resume does not equal good judgment," said Edwards, who made a fortune as a courtroom advocate, presenting his case in a folksy manner. "Mr. Vice President, I don't think the country can take four more years of this kind of experience."

But Cheney was unyielding.

Attempting to reverse Bush's slippage in the first presidential debate with Sen. John Kerry last week, Cheney repeatedly raised questions about the Democrat's steadiness and his qualifications to serve as commander in chief.

He said Kerry, throughout his career, had "a consistent pattern" of being on the wrong side of national security issues, repeating Bush's allegation that the Massachusetts Democrat would give other countries an outsized role in defending America.

"A little tough talk in the midst of a campaign or as part of a presidential debate cannot obscure a record of 30 years of being on the wrong side of defense issues," Cheney said.

He said Kerry and Edwards had been "totally inconsistent" in their views on the Iraq war, education reform and defense spending.

Cheney denied that he had suggested a connection between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks, but said there was "an established Iraqi track record with terror."

Throughout, the two men kept trying to ratchet up the pressure on each other. At times, each seemed to be clenching his jaw to hold back a reaction as the other spoke. Cheney would shoot Edwards cold stares. Edwards ruffled papers on the desk in front of him as he carved out his responses.

In at least one exchange, it appeared that Edwards got under the skin of the famously unflappable Cheney.

Countering Edwards' claim that the Iraq war had cost U.S. taxpayers $200 billion, Cheney said the accurate figure was $120 billion.

"You probably weren't there to vote for that," Cheney snapped.

In one of the key exchanges of the debate, Cheney implied that Edwards lacked the experience to step into the presidency.

In a sharply worded attack that characterized the tone of much of their face-off, Cheney turned to Edwards, who was seated about two feet away, and belittled his performance as an elected official.

"Senator, you have a record in the Senate that's not very distinguished," Cheney said matter-of-factly. He said the vice president's job requires him to preside, at times, over the Senate, where he is present on a regular basis.

"The first time I ever met you was when you walked on this stage tonight," Cheney said.

However, Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, said she had confronted Cheney after the debate and said that her husband had met him at a prayer breakfast in 2001, and that the vice president had replied, "Oh yeah." The two also met when Cheney swore in North Carolina's other senator, Elizabeth Dole, according to the Edwards campaign.

Edwards said he does not "claim to have the long political resume the vice president has, ... and the American people know that and deserve to know that." Then he repeated his line about a "long resume" being no guarantee of good judgment.

Minutes before the start of the nationally televised debate moderated by PBS' Gwen Ifill, their only head-to-head matchup of the campaign, the candidates entered from opposite sides of a red-carpeted stage set up in a gymnasium on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.

From the outset, Edwards hammered at Bush's and Cheney's credibility. He accused the administration of deliberate distortions in painting an overly "rosy scenario" about the progress of the U.S.-led efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Edwards accused Cheney of misleading the country by repeatedly implying that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the Sept. 11 attacks by al-Qaida. At the same time, he said Kerry had a plan for a "fresh start" in Iraq, by speeding up the training of Iraqi troops and the pace of reconstruction, to make the country safer for elections and encourage other countries to join the U.S.-led effort.

Cheney responded by accusing Edwards, time and again, of getting the facts wrong. He said the Democratic ticket mates had shifted with the winds of their party's primary contest to vote against an $87 billion spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan, after it became clear that Howard Dean's antiwar message was gaining support.

"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.

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