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Edwards, Cheney spar on Iraq war

Trade barbs on judgment, qualifications

CLEVELAND -- In a sharp face-to-face exchange, Senator John Edwards accused Vice President Dick Cheney of "not being straight with the American people" about Iraq, and Cheney challenged the national security credentials of the Democratic ticket last night while questioning whether Edwards had the seasoning to hold the second-highest office in the land.

"Frankly, senator, you have a record that's not very distinguished," Cheney told the one-term senator from North Carolina in the only vice presidential debate before Election Day, noting that the vice president's duties at times require Cheney to preside over the Senate. "The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight." A senior Edwards aide said that in fact, Cheney had met Edwards at least twice in recent years.

Edwards countered that Cheney's long rsum hadn't stopped the Bush team from making a mess in Iraq. "Mr. Vice President, I don't think the country can take four more years of this type of experience," Edwards said.

The 90-minute debate was not expected to dramatically shift the narrowing race between President Bush and Senator John F. Kerry. But both sides saw a chance to gain momentum just 28 days before the election, with soaring television ratings for the presidential debate and exploding new-voter registration rolls reflecting record levels of interest in the campaign.

On the Iraq invasion, the reasons for the war, and the reconstruction, Edwards repeatedly accused the administration of exhibiting bad judgment, and wasted no time raising a signature argument Cheney made before the war. "Mr. Vice President, there is no connection between the attacks of September 11th and Saddam Hussein," Edwards said in the early minutes of the showdown.

Cheney replied: "The senator has 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."

The wide-ranging debate at Case Western Reserve University touched on issues from gay marriage to Middle East peace and saw some lively exchanges between the two candidates. Though there were some deeply personal moments -- Edwards raised the fact that Cheney has a daughter who is a lesbian -- much of the debate was highly substantive, and both men jumped in to disagree with each other at times.

Both Edwards and Cheney were asked to explain past statements from the campaign trail. Asked whether he believed Kerry would endanger the United States, Cheney -- who once said electing the Massachusetts senator would increase the chances of a terrorist attack on the nation -- answered cautiously. "I don't believe he has the qualities we need in a commander in chief, because I don't think, based on his record, that he would pursue the kind of aggressive policies that need to be pursued if we're going to defeat these terrorists."

At another point in the debate, Cheney faced a question about his comment in 2000, while he was still chief executive of oil services giant Halliburton Corp., that sanctions against Iran should be lifted. Edwards seized on the topic and pushed it further, hoping to make an issue of Cheney's controversial service for a company that has since received no-bid contracts in Iraq. "While he was CEO of Halliburton, they paid millions of dollars in fines for providing false information on their company, just like Enron and Ken Lay. They did business with Libya and Iran, two sworn enemies of the United States," Edwards said. "They're now under investigation for having bribed foreign officials during that period of time. Not only that, they've gotten a $7.5 billion no-bid contract in Iraq, and instead of part of their money being withheld -- which is the way it's normally done, because they're under investigation -- they've continued to get their money."

Moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS followed up: "Mr. Vice President?"

"I can respond, Gwen, but it's going to take more than 30 seconds," Cheney replied.

"Well, that's all you've got," the moderator said.

"Well, the reason they keep mentioning Halliburton is because they're trying to throw up a smoke screen. They know the charges are false," Cheney said.

The first question of the night centered on Iraq, following a statement by the former civilian head of the US occupation in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, that too few troops had been committed to the invasion. Bremer, in comments reported yesterday, said the United States and Iraq had "paid a big price" for insufficient troop levels, remarks that gave Democrats fresh ammunition for their argument that Bush has mishandled the war. Republicans countered that troop movements are decided by military commanders, not political leaders.

Ifill asked Cheney about the remarks, as well as a statement by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a day earlier that there is "strong, hard evidence" of ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Cheney quickly shifted the debate back to the war on terror itself.

"What we did in Iraq was exactly the right thing to do. If I had it to recommend all over again, I would recommend exactly the same course of action," Cheney said.

In a separate answer, responding to allegations that he implied a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, Cheney said he had argued that Baghdad was a threat. "The point is that that's the place where you're most likely to see the terrorists come together with weapons of mass destruction, the deadly technologies that Saddam Hussein had developed and used over the years," Cheney said.

Kerry and Edwards "are not prepared to deal with states that sponsor terror. They've got a very limited view about how to use US military forces to defend America," he added.

Cheney then launched a more personal attack -- taking Edwards to task over his Senate record, saying he had "one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate."

"I'm surprised to hear him talk about records," Edwards said, turning the focus to Cheney's service in the House. "He was one of 10 to vote against Head Start, one of four to vote against banning plastic weapons that can pass through metal detectors. He voted against the Department of Education. He voted against funding for Meals on Wheels for seniors. He voted against a holiday for Martin Luther King. He voted against a resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa."

In the vice presidential debate four years earlier, Cheney disarmed his rival with friendliness, showing no signs of the dark pessimism Democrats had hoped for in the showdown with Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. Heading into last night, Edwards prepared with a similarly muted performance in mind. And Democrats, eager to get under the vice president's skin, gave a prominent seat in the audience to Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont -- whom Cheney had insulted with a profane remark on the Senate floor.

Cheney hit Kerry and Edwards hard on a central campaign theme, questioning why both men had voted to authorize the war in Iraq and then against an $87 billion funding measure. The Democratic team, Cheney said, had simply succumbed to political pressure during the primaries, when former governor Howard Dean of Vermont was surging on an antiwar message.

"Now if they couldn't stand up to the pressures that Howard Dean represented, how can we expect them to stand up to Al Qaeda?" Cheney said.

Edwards then took aim at the Bush-Cheney record again. "One thing that's very clear is that a long rsum does not equal good judgment," Edwards said.

When the debate turned to domestic issues, Cheney faced a question about gay marriage, an especially sensitive issue given Cheney's daughter. The vice president repeated his disagreement with Bush on the subject -- the president backed a constitutional ban on gay marriage, while Cheney contended it should be left to the states -- but also said the president "sets the policy for this administration."

Cheney did not mention his lesbian daughter. But Edwards did.

"Let me say first that I think the vice president and his wife love their daughter. I think they love her very much. And you can't have anything but respect for the fact that they're willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her. It's a wonderful thing," Edwards said, before repeating his opposition to gay marriage and his support for partner benefits.

Given a chance to reply, Cheney said: "Well, Gwen, let me simply thank the senator for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter. I appreciate that very much." After a brief pause, Ifill asked, "That's it?"

"That's it," Cheney replied. It was one of a couple of occasions during the night that he gave up a chance to counter Edwards, in keeping with his understated style.

When the debate ended, the surrogates for both sides launched a furious effort to declare their side victorious. "What you didn't hear was deafening -- the fact that they got the best lawyer and he couldn't defend the nominee on taxes and Iraq," Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said. "When one of the best advocates couldn't make that case, that's a big problem."

Countered Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee: "He looked like George Bush. He didn't want to answer questions. The vice president looked tired, very angry, smug. He is the prime minister, he tells George Bush what to do and when to do it."

The candidates' wives, Lynne Cheney and Elizabeth Edwards, were led into the event first. Cheney and Edwards followed shortly thereafter and sat, joined by Ifill, in complete silence for almost five minutes as they waited for the event to begin.

Kerry has benefited dramatically from the first presidential debate, his poll numbers have risen-- and his campaign has exhibited newfound confidence -- since a performance that most analysts said outshone the president's. Yet Kerry now risks failing to meet the expectations he raised last time when he and Bush square off Friday night in St. Louis -- one reason Kerry downplayed the significance of the debates altogether yesterday.

"These debates, people talk, about, sort of, you know, win-lose, that's not what it's about," Kerry said during a campaign stop in Iowa. "These debates are about an opportunity for the American people to kind of look into our souls a little bit and check our guts, and I like that, because all I'm doing is going in there and telling the truth. And the truth is what makes the difference for the American people."

At a news conference hours before the debate, Kerry did his part to portray Cheney as dishonest, accusing the vice president of misleading the public about a connection between Hussein and Al Qaeda. "It's time for the vice president to be accountable and to answer the questions that have arisen," he said.

Cheney, a veteran of the Nixon, Ford, and first Bush administrations, has evolved into arguably the most controversial figure in the White House. Lambasted by critics over his secretive energy meetings and his ties to Halliburton, Cheney is often portrayed as the dark mastermind behind the most conservative Bush policies, particularly the invasion of Iraq.

Edwards, a successful trial lawyer before running for his first Senate seat six years ago, has been depicted by critics as a policy lightweight. And Republicans have cast his trial lawyer past as part of the reason why medical costs are so high, saying frivolous lawsuits increase malpractice insurance and drive doctors out of business.

Set in northeastern Ohio, the debate took place on the front line of this year's election, in a state with 20 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. Although every modern Republican president has won Ohio, it remains hotly contested, its depressed economy and high unemployment giving Kerry an opening among disgruntled voters.

Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at akornblut@globe.com.

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