Trail Mix: Body Blows

It was billed as a contest between the man with the golden parachute and the man with the golden tongue. Instead, the debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards on Tuesday in Cleveland was nothing like the cliched encounter that some expected between the Halliburton CEO and the trial lawyer. Here's a rough guide to the highs and the lows of this election year's one and only vice presidential debate.

Cheney: The Highs

The veep was everything his boss, President George W. Bush, wasn't last week: relaxed, confident and articulate. Cheney conveyed disdain for his opponent without seeming disgusted by the debate itself. He leaned back in his seat, he upbraided Edwards for what he called "inaccuracies" and he even passed up the chance to rebut his opponent at times. Where Bush was edgy and hesitant, Cheney seemed smooth and forceful. The vice president adopted the tone of a high-school principal admonishing a wayward student, and it paid off. Edwards forced a smile, batted his eyelids and looked sullen.

Nowhere was Cheney more confident and in command than the first half of the debate, which focused on foreign policy. The exchange looked and sounded like a lesser version of Cheney's favorite TV forum--NBC's "Meet the Press"--minus the persistent questioning of anchor Tim Russert. Given the lack of weapons of mass destruction, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to deliver these two lines as assuredly as Cheney did: "The effort that we've mounted with respect to Iraq focused specifically on the possibility that this was the most likely nexus between the terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. What we did in Iraq was exactly the right thing to do." Cheney did a relentless job of presenting John Kerry as being weak on defense (or what he called "a record of 30 years of being on the wrong side of defense issues"). And he made his case unflinchingly, no matter whether Edwards accused him of seeking big defense cuts of his own, or failing to plan for postwar Iraq.

Cheney: The Lows

There's just one problem with confident delivery and correcting your opponent: you'd better get your own facts straight. Cheney castigated Edwards for saying there was no connection between the 9/11 attacks and Iraq. "The senator has got his facts wrong," Cheney declared. "I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11." That would be fine if Cheney hadn't appeared on "Meet the Press" a year ago to describe that very connection. The war, he said, was "a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11." Cheney also lambasted Edwards for failing to show up at the Senate, saying: "The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight." One small problem for vice presidents is the ready availability of transcripts and news reports. Those awkward pieces of information prove the two men met in and out of the Senate, not least when Edwards escorted the new senator for North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole, as she was sworn in by Cheney just last year.

If foreign policy was Cheney's commanding high, domestic policy was his emotional low. No piece of the domestic agenda is more important than jobs in a state such as Ohio, where the debate was staged. And Cheney showed little interest in the subject. When quizzed about jobs and poverty in Cleveland, he began by talking about taxes and litigation, but soon drifted into a lengthy answer about public schools. Where he could have voiced some sympathy for those who lost their jobs, he chose instead to challenge what he called "the data" about lost jobs. It was a coldly technocratic way to address the biggest problem in a battleground state. Not so different from his strange response to the question about HIV/AIDS among African-American women in the United States: "I was not aware that it was that severe an epidemic," Cheney admitted.

Edwards: The Highs

For all his nice-guy image, Edwards showed he could land a punch or two. He came out swinging at Cheney's credibility on Iraq ("Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people") and he directly appealed to voters by asking them to compare his opponent's words with what they see on the TV news. It was the same direct approach Edwards used when reciting a litany of failures at home, on jobs, poverty and medical costs. "The vice president and president alike talk about their experience on the campaign trail," he said. "Mr. Vice President, I don't think the country can take four more years of this kind of experience." Edwards also proved he could land some defensive blows for his boss, rebutting criticism that Kerry would somehow delegate national security decisions to foreign countries.

Whether it was jobs or the federal budget deficit, Edwards displayed the kind of ease on domestic issues that his opponent enjoyed on international affairs. That was especially true in his closing remarks, where the senator's trial-lawyer experience was on full display. After an anecdote about his father educating himself by watching TV, Edwards spoke of rising tuition costs before offering hope to what he portrayed as America's downtrodden middle class. "What they're going to give you is four more years of the same," he said. "John Kerry and I believe that we can do better. We believe in a strong middle class in this country."

Edwards: The Lows

The man with the golden tongue often sounded distinctly tongue-tied. He blinked nervously, stumbled over words, and confused Saddam Hussein with Osama bin Laden (before quickly correcting himself). He even smiled broadly as he tripped over the moderator's request to answer a question without referring to Kerry--and he found himself grinning in the middle of a response about killing terrorists. When the questions turned to his favorite line of attack against Cheney--the veep's old company Halliburton and its huge contracts in Iraq--Edwards wasted half his precious 90 seconds on a discussion about Iran and other countries with ties to terrorists.

It's one thing to seem less sure-footed on foreign policy, but it's another order of flubbing to sidestep the most predictable question of the night: what makes him ready to step into the presidency, given his lack of experience in government? Edwards laid out three things Americans want from their presidents: security, good judgment and the truth. All good analysis, but he struggled to apply those measures to himself. He meandered around his travels on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and he clung to Kerry's position on stopping the spread of nukes. Finally he settled on taking a swipe at Cheney's resume: "One thing that is very clear is that a long resume does not equal good judgment." None of those gambits nailed the question, and nothing underscored Edwards's flaws so much as his final resort to the very style of politics he shunned for so long: personal attacks.

The Expectations Game

Overall, the veep debate looked like a mirror image of last week's presidential contest, when neither candidate performed as expected. The supposedly charming Edwards rarely showed his affability (even if he didn't display the peevishness of the president). And the supposedly wooden Cheney displayed a force and drive that was unexpected (not unlike Kerry). Democrats have succeeded in caricaturing Cheney as a sinister and secretive figure over the last four years--just as Republicans have succeeded in caricaturing Kerry over the last several months as a weak-willed windbag. In doing so, both sides lowered expectations to the floor about both men. This time around, it was Cheney who benefited from the campaign of cartoons.