San Diego Union Tribune

October 6, 2004

No. 2s tangle over their pasts, the future
V.P. nominees jab over Iraq, domestic issues

By George E. Condon Jr.

CLEVELAND – Picking up where the presidential candidates left off last week, Vice President Dick Cheney proclaimed significant progress in the Iraq war while Sen. John Edwards lamented "the mess in Iraq" and demanded "a fresh start" with a new president.

As happened when President Bush and Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry debated, the 90-minute session was dominated by Iraq and featured several pointed exchanges. But unlike the Bush-Kerry showdown in Florida, last night's debate also touched on domestic issues dividing the two camps.

Cheney and Edwards tangled over the vice president's ties to Halliburton, which he once headed, and Edwards' voting record in the Senate, with Cheney noting his opponent was mocked by a newspaper as "Senator Gone."

Cheney aggressively defended the president's Iraq policies and pressed the Republican case that Kerry and Edwards have been inconsistent on the issue. At one point, he blamed their shifts in position on their hopes of trying to catch former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who was the early Democratic front-runner.

"If they couldn't stand up to the pressures that Howard Dean represented, how can we expect them to stand up to al-Qaeda?" asked Cheney.

He dismissed them as "two individuals who have been for the war when the headlines were good and against it when their poll ratings were bad," adding that Kerry must lose "if we want to win the war on terror."

But Edwards kept pounding away at what he sees as the bad result of Bush's policies, arguing that success can only come with a change in administration.

"Look at where we are now," he said. "And, it's a direct result of the failure to plan, the failure to have others involved in this effort. This is not an accident."

In one of the sharpest exchanges of the night – and the only time they strayed from the rules and interrupted each other – they argued over how dominant the U.S. role is in Iraq. Edwards repeated Kerry's assertion that the United States has suffered 90 percent of the casualties and borne 90 percent of the costs of the operation.

But Cheney objected to his opponent only talking about coalition casualties and insisted the casualty figure is 50 percent because he said Iraqi losses must be included. "For you to demean their sacrifices strikes me as beyond the pale," Cheney said.

"I'm not demeaning," interjected Edwards.

When Edwards said the Democrats have a plan to win in Iraq, Cheney dismissed it as an "echo" of the Bush strategy.

MARK DUNCAN / Associated Press
In a scene resembling a political convention, reporters and politicians swarmed into "spin alley" after last night's vice-presidential debate in Cleveland.
Set in perhaps the most contested of the battleground states, this was the second of four debates and the only one to feature the nominees for the vice presidency.

Though less was at stake here than will be the case when Bush and Kerry face off Friday in St. Louis, both Cheney and Edwards went after each other aggressively from the opening question posed by debate moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS.

When Cheney defended the president's decision to go to war in Iraq and raised the possibility of Saddam Hussein providing weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, Edwards shot back, "Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people."

Three times in the opening moments, Edwards pressed his case that Cheney has misled the American people by insisting that Hussein was linked to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Listen carefully to what the vice president is saying because there is no connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of September 11th, period," Edwards said.

But Cheney said Edwards "got his facts wrong."

"I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11, but there's clearly an established Iraqi track record with terror," he said.

The contrast between the two candidates was sharp, both stylistically and substantively.

Edwards was, as always, the trial lawyer arguing the case for John Kerry to the jury that is the American electorate. Cheney was the tough CEO arguing the benefits of a second Bush term.

Though Edwards, 51, is only 12 years younger than Cheney, he was clearly the more youthful figure on the stage at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University. The White House had insisted on ground rules that had the two candidates seated, believing that the energy contrast would be less stark than if they were both standing behind lecterns.

Both men gestured frequently with their hands, with Cheney often resting his chin on his hands.

The differences in the experience levels of the candidates also was stark. Edwards was a 16-year-old high school sophomore in North Carolina when Cheney took his first job in the federal government in 1969. And Cheney has since served as White House chief of staff, a member of the House and Defense Secretary, while Edwards is completing his first six-year term in the Senate.

But Edwards anticipated questions about the difference in experience.

"One thing that is very clear," he said, "is that a long resume does not equal good judgment." He added later, "Mr. Vice President, I don't think the country can take four more years of this kind of experience."

Neither side wasted much time in hammering away at what they believe are the vulnerabilities in the other candidate's resume.

Cheney stressed his experience in contrast with Edwards' voting record in his one term in the Senate. And Edwards was quick to lament the influence of Halliburton, the Houston-based oil and gas services giant formerly headed by Cheney.

Halliburton is the largest private contractor for U.S. forces in Iraq, and companies operating under the Halliburton umbrella have received $11 billion in contracts for work there.

Cheney, who earned an estimated $11 million from Halliburton during his time as chief executive officer from 1995 to 2000, insists he played no role in any of those contracts.

But critics – including Kerry – have complained that Cheney continues to collect an estimated $150,000 a year in deferred compensation from the company. He also enjoys more than $18 million in stock options, though he has pledged to donate to charity anything he receives from those stock options.

Cheney objected to the frequent mentions – seven in the debate – of his former company. "The reason they keep mentioning Halliburton is because they're trying to throw up a smoke screen. They know the charges are false . . . It's an effort that they've made repeatedly to try to confuse the voters . . . "

But Edwards stood his ground.

"The facts are the vice president's company, that he was CEO of, that did business with sworn enemies of the United States, paid millions of dollars in fines for providing false financial information (and) it's under investigation for bribing foreign officials," he said.

Cheney also moved away from comments he had made while at Halliburton, saying last night that he no longer opposes sanctions on Iran.

The differences were also sharp on domestic policy.

Where Cheney hailed "the biggest fiscal turnaround in history," Edwards saw increased joblessness, deepening poverty and a suffering middle class.

"We are for more tax cuts for the middle class than they're for, have been for the last four years," the Democrat said. "But we are not for more tax cuts for multimillionaires. They are."

But Cheney said, "I think the Kerry-Edwards approach basically is to raise taxes and to give government more control over the lives of individual citizens."

The tone of the debate noticeably softened after Cheney was asked about his differences with the president on the question of gay rights.

The vice president, whose daughter is a lesbian, is not totally behind the president's call for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, but he stressed here that the president "sets the policy for this administration and I support the president."

Edwards praised the vice president for his love of his daughter and praised him for embracing her after she said she was a lesbian. Cheney thanked Edwards, saying, "I appreciate that very much."

On other subjects, Cheney declined to blame Edwards for what he has called "frivolous" lawsuits, and both men agreed that there needs to be some tort reform. Edwards also faulted the administration for not being sufficiently engaged in the Middle East peace process.

Cheney also accused Edwards of taking advantage of a "special tax loophole" while practicing law, saying that saved Edwards $600,000 in Medicare taxes. But Edwards said, "I have paid all the taxes that I owe."

He shot back that when Cheney headed Halliburton "they took advantage of every off-shore loophole available."

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