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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: VP candidates get their turn

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- While the ink still isn't entirely dry on the reports of the first Al Gore-George W. Bush debate, the national media's attention has already turned to the vice presidential debate between Democrat Joe Lieberman and Republican Dick Cheney.

Thursday evening's debate in Kentucky lacks the drama of Tuesday's initial presidential encounter. But with voters torn between Gore and Bush -- and with neither presidential candidate scoring a knockout punch in Tuesday's debate -- any mistakes by one of the running mates could impact the November election.

Like Gore, Lieberman is generally assumed to be the more effective debater going into this encounter. A veteran of the Connecticut Legislature and the U.S. Senate, Lieberman proved to be a strong debater in his encounters with Republican predecessor Lowell Weicker when the two met in a 1988 Senate race.

Lieberman, the first Jewish vice presidential nominee of a major party, is widely viewed as a serious and thoughtful moderate who has shown his character and independence, whether he was berating Hollywood for sex and violence in its films or criticizing President Clinton's behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

At the same time, Lieberman is known for his sense of humor, which is often self-deprecating. The Connecticut senator has proven to be an enthusiastic campaigner, and voters seem to find his down-to-earth style appealing.

Cheney, on the other hand, has proven to be a much weaker campaigner. He has had fewer serious races in which to sharpen his campaign skills, and his overall style is less engaging than Lieberman's.

Cheney's approach is deliberative. And while that style is one reason many observers believe he would make a good vice president, it isn't a particularly effective approach to take in a debate.

Of course, that assessment lowers the bar for Cheney considerably. Nobody expects him to be as engaging as Lieberman. And on international policy, which is likely to come up in the debate, the Republican begins with much greater experience and expertise. So don't assume that Cheney will not be able to hold his own in the debate.

While only two men (plus CNN anchor and debate moderator Bernard Shaw) are taking part in the debate, two others -- Gore and Bush -- can't be ignored. After all, most voters will be making their electoral choices based on the presidential nominees, not their running mates.

Lieberman is likely to use Cheney's conservative record when in Congress to paint the GOP ticket as too conservative and too extreme. The vice presidential nominee will reach back to particular votes that Cheney cast during the early 1980s to put Cheney on the defensive, and Lieberman will likely sound more disappointed than angry about the Republican's record.

But don't expect the Connecticut senator to stop at Cheney. Instead, he almost certainly will bring Bush into every answer, contrasting the "Gore-Lieberman" approach to the "Bush-Cheney" agenda.

For his part, Cheney is likely to mimic Bush's charge that Clinton and Gore have wasted eight years. And look for Cheney to emphasize differences between Gore's positions and Lieberman's voting record and rhetoric, whether about school choice, taxes or character in the White House.

It's very difficult to believe that the viewership for Thursday's debate will be anything as large as it was for Tuesday's presidential debate. And few Americans are likely to base their presidential choice on Thursday's debate. But so many unexpected things have happened this political year that anyone who predicts the shape and impact of Thursday's debate could be in for a surprise or two.

Rothenberg Senate Ratings, October 4, 2000

REPUBLICANS: Leaning Takeover: Grams (MN), Roth (DE), Florida Open. Toss-Up: Ashcroft (MO), Gorton (WA). Slight Advantage for Retention: Abraham (MI), Burns (MT), Chafee (RI). Santorum (PA). Clear Advantage for Retention: Jeffords (VT). Safe: DeWine (OH), Frist (TN), Hatch (UT), Hutchison (TX), Kyl (AZ), Lott (MS), Lugar (IN), Snowe (ME), Thomas (WY).

DEMOCRATS: Likely Takeover: Nevada Open. Leaning Takeover: Robb (VA). Toss-Up: New York Open. Slight Advantage for Retention: Nebraska Open. Clear Advantage for Retention: New Jersey Open. Safe: Akaka (HI), Bingaman (NM), Byrd (WV), Conrad (ND), Feinstein (CA), Kennedy (MA), Sarbanes (MD), Kohl (WI), Lieberman (CT).

 
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