Judgment call

October 07, 2004

EVEN TO viewers prepared for it, the contrast between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards as they sat side by side at their roundtable debate Tuesday night was startling.

Mr. Cheney, 63, often seemed like a grumpy old man who has seen it all and done it all, and could barely contain his contempt for a challenger he sought to dismiss as a naive newcomer and empty suit.

For his part, Mr. Edwards, 51, obligingly took on the role of presumptuous pup, brandishing a fresh haircut that shaved more years off his deceptively youthful appearance and a terrier-like determination to match the Bush administration's chief hachet man blow for blow.

So potent was the picture it may have been possible to watch with the sound turned off and still come to the same conclusions about the No. 2 men on the ticket who used their only debate encounter to spar on territory sometimes a bit too dicey for the presidential candidates to tread.

And yet, for those who did listen, the 90-minute sit-down highlighted the strengths, values and priorities each team brings to the fundamental task of making decisions on behalf of their countrymen.

A recurring theme of the painfully contrived setting -- designed according to Mr. Cheney's preferences -- was that the election four weeks from now turns on the question of judgment.

From the perspective of his more than four decades of government service, the vice president sought to portray Mr. Edwards and Democratic nominee John Kerry as ditherers who simply tack to the political winds because they both voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq but are now critical of how President Bush has managed the conflict.

"You've not been consistent," Mr. Cheney told his opponent, "and there's no indication at all that John Kerry has the conviction to successfully carry through on the war on terror."

But Mr. Edwards fired back again and again that the Bush administration was ignoring or distorting the facts about how badly things are going in Iraq to avoid acknowledging its mistakes.

"It's very clear that a long rM-isumM-i does not equal good judgment," he observed.

Mr. Edwards also laid what is likely to be the groundwork for the remaining two debates between the presidential contenders: the assertion that while national security may be the most important issue of this campaign, it is not the only important issue.

The vice president mostly punted on questions about job losses, poverty, the deficit and health care costs, choosing to zing the senator for missing votes during the campaign or to raise the specter of terror.

That won't be good enough for the top of the ticket. If Mr. Bush offers simply more of the same for the next four years, it's hard to believe a majority of Americans would choose that course.

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