WASHINGTON -- Four years ago, the moderator of the debate between the vice presidential candidates asked Dick Cheney this portentous question: If Saddam Hussein were found to be developing weapons of mass destruction, would a Bush-Cheney administration feel compelled to "take him out"?
"We might have no other choice . . . you would have to give very serious consideration to military action," Cheney responded. His challenger, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, agreed -- and even suggested that the matter ought to be left up to a president and not debated in "the heat of a political campaign."
The exchange over Iraq got relatively little notice. But now Cheney's prophecy is at the heated core of this presidential campaign, and when the two vice presidential candidates debate tonight at 9, the Democratic nominee, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, is expected to try to define Cheney as the architect of the administration's Iraq policy. The debate, in Cleveland, will be their only one of the campaign.
For Cheney, who has been the "attack dog" of the Bush-Cheney ticket, the debate is an opportunity to portray both John F. Kerry and Edwards as flip-floppers on Iraq. But for Edwards, in what may be the biggest moment of his political career, the opportunity is arguably much greater: He is expected to use the skills he honed in his years as a trial lawyer to try to draw a portrait of Cheney as the ultimate flip-flopper on Iraq and the engineer of what the Democrats say is a failed postwar policy.
In separate teleconferences yesterday with reporters, the Bush and Kerry campaigns set the stage. Kerry campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart said he expected Edwards to look Cheney in the eye and say about Iraq: "Why didn't you level with us?"
Bush campaign adviser Mary Matalin said Cheney will explain why the country must go forward with President Bush's policies and "why Senator Kerry's policies would be so counterproductive."
The crux of Edwards's argument that Cheney flip flopped on Iraq may come from an April 29, 1991, speech by Cheney in which the then-secretary of defense dismissed the idea that the first Gulf War should have culminated in a drive to Baghdad to oust Hussein.
"I think the answer is a resounding 'No,' " Cheney said at the time, calling the idea of going to Baghdad "fallacious."
"We'd have to put another government in its place," Cheney said. "What kind of government? . . . How long would we have had to stay . . .? How many casualties should the United States accept in that effort to try to create clarity and stability in a situation that is inherently unstable? I think it is vitally important for a president to know when to use military force. I think it is also very important for him to know when not to commit US military force."
If pressed on that point, aides said, Cheney will argue, as he did in the 2000 debate, that Hussein was determined to get weapons of mass destruction and had to be deposed and that the world changed after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Previewing his likely plan of attack, Edwards said last week that, "It is inexcusable that Dick Cheney knew over a decade ago how difficult it would be to bring stability to Iraq, and yet he and George Bush invaded Iraq last year with no plan to restore peace to the country, leaving our troops unprepared and vulnerable to attacks." Edwards also said the Bush administration has delivered promises that turned out to be "not true," such as, "They told us this war was going to pay for itself."
Edwards, however, will have his own explaining to do on Iraq. Like Kerry, Edwards supported the 2002 resolution giving Bush the authority to go to war. Moreover, in his floor speech in support of the resolution, Edwards said, "Almost no one disagrees with these basic facts: that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and a menace, that he has weapons of mass destruction, and that he is doing everything in his power to get nuclear weapons."
The "basic fact" that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction at the time of Edwards's statement has not been proved. Cheney might use those words against Edwards, highlighting comments by the senator that have received little notice during the general election focus on Kerry.
Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, predicted that Cheney will also focus on Edwards's vote against the $87 billion appropriation for the Iraq war. While many people have heard about Kerry's vote against that appropriation, it will be news to many voters that Edwards voted the same way, according to Goeas.
Cheney mentioned the vote in a speech last week, saying, "When it came time to vote for funds that would provide our fighting men and women with body armor, ammunition, jet fuel, and spare parts, Senators Kerry and Edwards voted no."
One of Cheney's toughest attacks on Edwards is likely to be the vice president's allegation that Edwards is partly responsible for "lawsuit abuse," alluding to Edwards's career as a trial lawyer. Cheney said last week that there is "100 billion dollars a year added in cost because of our medical liability system."
"Cheney needs to make the case on Iraq, make the general case on administration policy, and then say 'trial lawyer' 500 times," said Republican strategist Grover Norquist.
"There are people who are congenital Republicans but don't remember why," he said. Focusing on trial lawyers and suits they bring "will stir their juices."
Kiki McLean, a Democratic strategist who advised Lieberman during the 2000 debate against Cheney, said the vice president might have had to change his strategy following polls indicating Bush lost Thursday's debate.
"They feel endangered now, and they will try to send Cheney on a much more aggressive stance than he used against Lieberman, much more negative in tone," McLean said. She said she expects Edwards to try to use the debate to scrutinize Cheney's role in persuading Bush to go to war in Iraq.
Edwards's attack is also likely to focus on Cheney's role as the former head of Halliburton Corp., which received contracts in Iraq.
Edwards, whose primary campaign was based on his theme of "two Americas," is expected to reprise that -- although perhaps not with the same language -- by tying economic problems to the administration's Iraq strategy. For example, Edwards has said recently on the campaign trail that the price of oil is nearly twice as high as the administration predicted before the war.
Edwards may then attack Cheney for his role in developing an energy policy that tilts toward more oil drilling, while the Kerry-Edwards plan calls for making the United States less dependent on foreign oil and domestic drilling.
Carter Eskew, another Democratic strategist who advised Lieberman during the 2000 debate, said Edwards could turn Cheney's role as the "central cheerleader" for the Iraq war against the vice president. Unlike in 2000, "this time there is a real specific record" from Cheney's term as vice president, Eskew said.
The two candidates spent the weekend preparing for the debate, which will be held at Case Western Reserve University. Cheney practiced at his Wyoming home with Representative Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who played Lieberman in a similar mock debate in 2000. Edwards practiced in Chautauqua, N.Y., with Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, who played Cheney in a similar 2000 session with Lieberman.