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Inside Politics

Cheney, Edwards wage aggressive battle

Debate sets tone for next showdown between Bush, Kerry


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U.S. Army soldiers watch a rerun of the vice presidential debate at Camp Eagle in the Sadr City area of Baghdad on Wednesday.
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (CNN) -- Tuesday night's debate was a good one. Multifaceted, aggressive and full of one-liners -- the vice presidential debate pitted two deeply contrasting world views.

Although a relative newcomer, John Edwards performed slightly better than Vice President Dick Cheney in my opinion -- although both men delivered solid performances, and each gave his side something for which to cheer.

A CBS News poll of undecided voters show 41 percent judged Edwards the winner and 28 percent favored Cheney. An ABC News poll with more Republicans than Democrats in its sample found the vice president the winner 43 percent to 35 percent.

Edwards entered the contest needing to: prove he was fit for high office, offer a compelling vision of life under a John Kerry administration and attack the Bush-Cheney administration on national security grounds. He did all three to a varying extent.

Indeed, he was articulate and substantive across a range of issues from Afghanistan to education, easily citing statistics, using rhetorical questions well and counterpunching when necessary. His recitation of a series of things that Cheney voted against, including the Head Start education program and Meals on Wheels for senior citizens, is certain to become a familiar Democratic refrain and part of a television ad.

Perhaps contrary to expectations, Edwards may have had his best moments while discussing foreign policy during the first hour. On national security issues, he challenged Cheney and President Bush not only on policy grounds ("the mess in Iraq") but on personal integrity issues as well ("you are still not being straight with the American people"). Edwards' weakest moment came when he was asked about being a heartbeat away from the presidency.

While he did not prevail overall, the vice president also performed well. He made the case that the war on terror is a challenging issue requiring strong leadership, but he did so without coming across as a curmudgeon. In fact, he had several funny lines ("that's a lot of money even by Massachusetts standards") and even a smiled a bit.

Cheney offered a stinging critique of Kerry and Edwards, arguing that their Senate records were undistinguished and undercut any campaign "tough talk." For Republicans who bemoaned the president's performance last week, Cheney's overall solid display and his several funny one-liners gave them reason to smile and certainly gave them a boost of confidence going into Friday's presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri.

While Edwards won the debate (the second Democratic debate win in a row), perhaps the real star of the night was moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS. She asked pointed, tough and topical questions on a variety of issues, from AIDS and poverty to flip-flopping and Iran. Her tough questions probably contributed to the more aggressive tone of the debate as well as to the enlightening nature of many of the exchanges.

While it was intriguing and diverse, given the lack of a dominant winner (this was no Lloyd Bentsen over Dan Quayle) and the fact that it is a vice presidential and not presidential debate, Tuesday night's contest probably will not significantly shift the presidential polls.

Finally, it should be noted that this week is likely to be one of the three or four most significant political weeks of the campaign, filled with a number of other important political events that may reduce the amount of attention the debate receives in the next day or two.

Among the significant political events this week are comments from Paul Bremer, the former U.S. administrator in Iraq, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; violence in Iraq; the upcoming presidential debate; Friday's unemployment report; and Saturday's Afghanistan election. These will likely lessen the impact of the vice presidential debate.

One other event to watch for that may make waves this week -- the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. Depending on the winner and what he or she says (remember Jimmy Carter's stinging critique of war with Iraq two years ago), that announcement could have an unexpected impact on the election.

So to summarize, Tuesday was a good night for both sides. Edwards, although the newcomer, was a little bit better. But Republicans got a good performance from their candidate, and Friday night should shape up to be the most contentious debate yet.


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