Stakes Are High For Tuesday's Cheney/ Edwards Face-Off

Vice-presidential debate likely to highlight Cheney's experience, Edwards' energy and eloquence.

After a month of treading water in the polls, John Kerry's campaign finally appears to have "the Big Mo," as the first President Bush dubbed political momentum. Fueled by his strong performance in Thursday's debate, Kerry is now running neck and neck with George W. Bush, the tightest the race has been since the close of the Republican convention.

Can Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, keep "the Big Mo" rolling? Can Dick Cheney knock the Democrats back off track? The stakes are high for Tuesday's vice-presidential debate, which will take place in the battleground state of Ohio.

The Republicans would like nothing more than to put Kerry and Edwards back on the defensive, and the debate is a prime opportunity to do so. Watch for Cheney to mount a vigorous defense of the administration's Iraq policy (which he was instrumental in planning) while taking jabs at Kerry and Edwards' Senate voting records and implying that they are not up to the job of defending the country.

If you are expecting to see the menacing-puppet-master Dick Cheney of media caricature, you may be surprised. Instead, look for a reemergence of Dick Cheney circa his 2000 debate with Joe Lieberman: a good-natured grandfather with a masterful command of international and domestic affairs.

John Edwards has a different challenge. Not only must he demonstrate his readiness for the presidency in one of his few national appearances, but he is also setting the stage for his own political future. If Kerry loses the election, a strong Edwards debate performance could pave the way for a presidential run in 2008.

That won't be mentioned on Tuesday, of course. Instead, Edwards is likely to pick up where Kerry left off last Thursday (see "Candidates Lock Horns On Foreign-Policy Issues In Debate #1"), arguing that the current administration has mismanaged the war on terror, the war in Iraq and the economy here at home. You can probably expect a few anecdotes about regular-folks-just-struggling-to-make-ends-meet as former trial lawyer Edwards demonstrates the common touch that helped him connect with jurors better than just about any attorney in the nation.

What makes the Cheney/ Edwards showdown so interesting is that both are generally viewed as better public speakers than their counterparts on the top of the ticket. The vice president has held practically every political job in Washington and has an almost unparalleled depth and breadth of knowledge. And Edwards, a silver-tongued trial lawyer before he became a senator, was known for his ability to sway even the most hardened juror. It's a clash of the debate titans: experience and assuredness versus youthful energy and eloquence.

The format for the 90-minute debate, to be held at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University at 9 p.m. ET, will differ from last Thursday's presidential face-off. Gwen Ifill of PBS will moderate and can ask questions on any topic, foreign or domestic. Both candidates will be seated at a table — Republicans didn't want to allow Edwards to use his courtroom-honed stage skills or allow viewers to contrast his physique with the slightly less toned vice president's.

Some question whether anything the vice-presidential candidates do matters in the final analysis, given that it's still the top of the ticket that gets the votes. But it's hard to ignore the fact that 25 million viewers watched the vice-presidential debate in 2000. That may be far less than the 140 million who tuned in to the last Super Bowl, but it's around the number who watch "CSI" each week. If nothing else, what happens on Tuesday could drive political discussions around the water cooler for the next few days. This close to the election — and in an election this close — every day is important.

Nevertheless, it's useful to remember the lesson from perhaps the most famous vice-presidential debate of all time. In 1988, Dan Quayle squared off against veteran Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen. After Bentsen repeatedly questioned his experience, Quayle shot back that he had "as much experience in Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency." Bentsen pounced: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy." As far as that debate was concerned, Quayle was a goner. But that didn't stop him from being sworn in as vice president three months later.

So maybe everything isn’t riding on the veep debate, but one thing's for sure: The B guys had better bring their A games.