Cheney, Edwards Take The Gloves Off

Vice-presidential candidates tangle over Iraq, each other's records in testy debate.

This was no kinder, gentler debate.

On Tuesday, vice-presidential candidates Dick Cheney and John Edwards came out swinging and barely let up until the final bell. Both men spoke in measured tones, but the attacks were extremely pointed and, on several occasions, personal.

As in last Thursday's debate between President Bush and Senator Kerry (see "Candidates Lock Horns On Foreign-Policy Issues In Debate #1"), the conflict in Iraq served as a flash point. Edwards wasted little time in hammering the administration for its handling of events there, seizing on a recent speech by L. Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, in which he said the U.S. has never had enough troops on the ground.

"Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people," the North Carolina senator said, later adding, "We need a fresh start."

It was a theme that Edwards would revisit several times throughout the 90-minute encounter, which ranged from U.S. relations with Iran to Cheney's former leadership of Halliburton, the oil-services firm that later received one of the largest private contracts for the reconstruction in Iraq. Edwards also sought to portray the administration as out of touch with the American public on key domestic issues.

For his part, Cheney hammered Edwards for being a lightweight. He said that the senator had one of the worst attendance records in the Senate. As vice president, he served as president of that body, Cheney noted to Edwards. "The first time I ever met you was the time you walked on this stage tonight," he said. (On Wednesday, CNN showed a photograph of Edwards and Cheney together at a prayer breakfast in 2001.)

Cheney also said that Senator Kerry has had a shaky record on defense issues dating back to his first run for Congress during the 1970s. In that race, Kerry argued the U.S. should not be allowed to take military action abroad without first securing permission from the United Nations, the vice president said.

And Cheney continued a line of attack pursued by Bush in the first presidential debate on the issue of Iraq. "These are two individuals who have been for the war when the headlines were good and against it when their poll ratings were bad," Cheney said, noting that both Kerry and Edwards voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, then voted against an $87 billion bill that funded efforts there.

Cheney added that he would follow the same course of action in Iraq if he could do it again. "The world is far safer today because Saddam Hussein is in jail, his government's no longer in power, and we did exactly the right thing," he said.

The vice president is known for his low-key style, but has been known to fly off the handle on rare occasions. In a much-publicized incident last year, he used a certain word against Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, on the Senate floor. (The issue at the time was Leahy's criticism of Cheney's relationship with Halliburton.) Cheney also made one of the more inflammatory statements on the campaign trail when he suggested that the U.S. would face another attack if a Kerry/Edwards ticket were to be elected.

On Tuesday, however, the vice president did not blow his top, even as Edwards was launching his harshest attacks, linking Halliburton with the Enron and Worldcom scandals of recent years, as well as criticizing the administration for cutting combat pay for soldiers fighting in Iraq.

Edwards, a polished speaker who developed his debating chops in the courtroom as a trial lawyer, also kept his cool, even as Cheney accused him of utilizing a loophole to shave $600,000 from his tax bill when he was an attorney.

The Democratic candidate rebuffed attacks on his Senate record by cataloging a list of controversial votes Cheney cast when he was a member of the House of Representatives during the 1980s.

"He voted against funding for Meals on Wheels for seniors. He voted against a holiday [honoring] Martin Luther King. He voted against a resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa," Edwards said. "It's amazing to hear him criticize either my record or John Kerry's."

Foreign-policy topics dominated the discussion, but domestic policy did come up. Sounding the same populist theme that defined his primary campaign for president, Edwards portrayed the Bush administration as out of touch with ordinary Americans on bread-and-butter economic issues, noting that the administration's tax policy rewards investment income more than it does employment income.

"We don't just value wealth, which they do," said Edwards. "We value work in this country. And it is a fundamental value difference between them and us."

As in the first debate between President Bush and Senator Kerry, the two candidates were under strict time limits in responding to questions from moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS and comments from each other. But unlike the first debate, both candidates were seated.

The two presidential candidates will meet again on Friday in St. Louis, where they will take questions from an audience of swing voters. They will meet for a third and final time the following Wednesday in Tempe, Arizona, to discuss domestic and economic issues.