Cheney, Lieberman gear up for sole vice presidential debate
DANVILLE, Kentucky (CNN) -- Now it's their turn: Vice presidential candidates Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman will take the debate stage Thursday with each hoping to convey to voters they are capable of assuming the presidency in times of crisis.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, talks to reporters while visiting the Richmond Fire Department, Wednesday, in Richmond, Kentucky.
Lieberman and Cheney are expected to wrangle over competing visions on the national economy, health care, education, energy policy and defense when they meet Thursday in Danville, Kentucky at 9 p.m. EDT. Each wants to pick up where Democratic nominee Al Gore and Republican rival George W. Bush left off in Tuesday's lead-off presidential debate and give their party tickets a boost in the polls.
And unlike their potential bosses -- who will meet again in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and St. Louis, Missouri, over the next two weeks -- the vice presidential hopefuls will have just one shot to get it right.
Lieberman and Cheney will sit down with debate moderator Bernard Shaw of CNN during a 90-minute, talk-show style forum hosted by Centre College. Each candidate will be given two minutes to respond to questions posed by Shaw, who has the option of asking follow-up queries.
Lieberman and Cheney will also will also be physically closer to one another than in a traditional debate format, where rival office seekers are usually given about eight to ten feet breathing space between them.
With most nationwide opinion polls showing Gore and Bush deadlocked in tightest electoral contest in decades, the ticket mates will be looking -- perhaps first and foremost -- to avoid any gaffes that could potentially damage their chances in November.
Both men have been hard at work preparing for the showdown. Lieberman has stayed largely out of view in Kentucky horse country for the past week, conferring with aides and staging mock debates at an antebellum mansion about two hours' drive from Danville.
The Connecticut senator planned the last of three mock sessions Wednesday afternoon, with longtime friend and Washington lawyer Bob Barnett taking on Cheney's role. Members of the debate team say Lieberman is up to speed on policy but needs to practice getting his answers into the two minutes allowed by the format.
The Lieberman team expects the debate to focus on the Gore and Bush records and positions, but is preparing the Democrat for questions about his own record in the Senate and differences with Gore on issues such as school vouchers and the Social Security retirement age.
Commented one Lieberman aide: "Not only do you have to watch your own back in these vice presidential debates, you also have to watch the presidential candidate's too."
Cheney says he's ready to go
Cheney stayed early this week in the congressional district of Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who has been helping the former defense secretary prepare for his first debate in more than a decade by serving as a stand-in for Lieberman.
Dick Cheney campaigns in Ohio
Aides said that the former Wyoming congressman has also prepared for questions about his congressional voting record, which includes staunchly conservative stances on issues such as gun control and the environment.
"They can do whatever they want to do," Cheney told reporters in Washington on Wednesday. "I know what I want to do. What I want to do is have a conversation with the American people. I would like to have people who watch the debate come away with an understanding of what our proposals are."
Cheney also said that Thursday's forum will be yet another opportunity to distinguish the philosophical differences between the Republican and Democratic tickets.
"I hope folks will understand that it isn't just an argument over numbers and statistics," he said. "There are fundamental underlying differences in terms of our approach to the major public policy problems of the day, in terms of how we approach education, the need for Medicare reform, how we approach Social Security and tax policy."
However, scholars and political analysts say the most important element of most vice presidential debates is whether the No. 2 candidates can prove to voters they're prepared to take over the helm of the executive branch at a moment's notice.
"There have been occasions such as the 1988 debate involving Dan Quayle when questions were raised about whether the candidate was capable," said Georgetown University professor Stephen Wayne. "The vice presidential debates don't matter until people mess up."
Memorable 'zingers' and 'flubs'
Perhaps the most memorable broadside at a vice presidential debate was delivered by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas during that forum, after Quayle pointed out that he had as much congressional experience as John F. Kennedy did when was elected president in 1960.
Bentsen, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, responded: "I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."
The 1976 vice presidential debate between Republican candidate Bob Dole and Democrat Walter Mondale gave Dole the reputation of being a "hatchet man." Dole's contention that Democratic presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt guided the United States into two world wars hardly warmed voters to the GOP ticket.
"If we added up the killed and wounded from the Democrat wars in this country, it would be about 1.6 million Americans," Dole charged.
But analysts say such blunders only have an impact on presidential races that are extremely close. Despite Quayle's dismal performance in 1988, GOP nominee George Bush handily defeated Democratic rival Michael Dukakis in that election, they point out.
Four years earlier, Democratic candidate Geraldine Ferraro took then-Vice President Bush to task during a heated debate over international policy.
At one point in the debate, Bush started his answer, "Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon."
Ferraro listened and then responded, "Let me say, first of all, that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy."
The audience responded with loud applause. But Ferraro and Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale lost the 1984 election in one of the biggest landslides in U.S. electoral history.
CNN Correspondent Jeanne Meserve and Reuters contributed to this report.