Q&A: Vice presidential debate

Cheney was 'serious, sober, even-keeled' but Edwards more than held his own and scored some points as well.

The Christian Science Monitor's Liz Marlantes attended the vice presidential debate in Cleveland Tuesday night. She gives her thoughts in this Monitor Q & A.

Did the debate unfold as people expected it might?

There were two things everyone was looking for that did in fact play out: A definite contrast in styles - Cheney came across as serious, sober, even-keeled. To some extent, I thought he was even less animated than usual - mumbled to the point where it was hard to hear him in a few spots.

Like his boss, he's a man of few words who gets right to the point: On several questions, he declined to use up all his time - at one point, was asked by the moderator if he wanted to respond to something Edwards said, and just shook his head "no."

Edwards came across as sincere, empathetic. The trial lawyer in him was evident - he repeatedly picked up on things Cheney said, and appealed to viewers as though they were a jury, using emotional and sometimes personal anecdotes to make his case.

This was a format that was supposed to favor Cheney - and it is a good one for him - but Edwards did just fine with it, much better than he did with sit-down debates during the primary season.

The other predictable aspect of this debate was that both candidates were strongly on the attack. Cheney spent a great deal of time ripping into Kerry's record - both calling him a flip-flopper and also portraying him as an anti-defense and pro-tax liberal who wants to expand the reach of government.

He also portrayed Edwards as inexperienced and shallow - hitting him for missing votes in the Senate, saying pointedly that as Vice President, he is also president of the Senate and that tonight was the first time he ever met Edwards (Democrats later released an old photo of the two men shaking hands).

Edwards hit back on the administration's record on jobs and Iraq. He attacked Cheney repeatedly for implying there was a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and hit him on Halliburton's no-bid contracts in Iraq. Interestingly, he even hit Cheney's record as a congressman and Secretary of Defense - pointing to votes he made against the Martin Luther King holiday, and the weapons systems he cancelled.

Did Mr. Cheney and Mr. Edwards help or hurt their campaigns?

It probably won't have a huge impact either way - vice presidential debates typically don't unless someone makes a huge gaffe, which didn't happen tonight. For partisans on both sides, it probably reinforced impressions that they already held - Cheney likely came across to staunch Republicans as experienced and tough; while to staunch Democrats he likely seemed dour and out of touch; Edwards likely struck Democrats as compassionate and sharp, but Republicans probably saw him as shallow and glib.

For undecided voters, it's hard to say - but my instinct is that Edwards may have helped his ticket somewhat more, by coming across as the candidate more in touch with average people's concerns. Snap polls showed a mixed picture, with an ABC poll showing Cheney winning and a CBS poll of undecided voters showing Edwards winning.

Was the Vice President able to restore some of the momentum for the Republicans that many people felt was lost after Thursday's presidential debate?

Again, it's not likely to have a major impact. But it could help Bush going into Friday's debate simply by laying the groundwork for many attacks on Kerry that the president will need to make - moving beyond the simple "flip-flop" charge, and probing the rest of Kerry's record, for example.

Bush is giving what aides are billing as a "major speech" on national security Wednesday, and I expect him to hit Kerry hard as weak on defense, for reasons beyond just his votes on Iraq. I also expect on Friday that Bush will hit Kerry hard on some domestic issues like taxes.

But Edwards may have helped his ticket, too, by amplifying the major point Kerry made last week - that Bush and Cheney have falsely tried to link Saddam Hussein with Al Qaeda, bringing into question their credibility.

The Bush campaign's current spin is that momentum was already shifting back their way before the debate - because, they say, Kerry won last week's debate on style and style "fades" quickly. But there's no question that there will still be more pressure on the president to have a good performance Friday after what happened last week - and tonight didn't change that.

Were you surprised that at one point Vice President Cheney said he hadn't said there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 considering his comments of recent days?

Yes! Democrats will pounce on that, guaranteed.

Was John Edwards able to convince Americans that he would make a viable vice president even without the experience of someone like Mr. Cheney?

Well, that's obviously the big question surrounding him - and I guess we'll have to wait and see what the polls say. But my instinct is that he actually did pretty well. He doesn't have Cheney's experience or gravitas - which he frankly admitted.

But he tried to cast it as a question of judgment, saying a long resume doesn't automatically mean a candidate has good judgment. His aim was clearly to convince viewers that he, not Cheney, shares their values - and would therefore make better calls about things like when to put American troops at risk.

How did the candidates do when discussing the US economy?

One of the most successful things Edwards did tonight was help shift the focus of the campaign back somewhat to domestic issues - highlighting the so-called "middle-class squeeze" - and using personal stories to show he's on the side of average Americans.

His closing remarks were a good example of this - talking about his dad learning math from a television program, and how the American dream is slipping away from middle class workers. There's clearly a big debate about taxes coming up, which the two candidates got into tonight: Cheney portrayed Kerry and Edwards as pro-tax; Edwards argued that Bush and Cheney want to tax work over wealth.

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