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Some hard punches, but no knockout blows

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The way political analysts see it, Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator John Edwards did not just draw sharp contrasts with each other during the vice presidential debate last night: They also drew contrasts with the tops of their tickets. Their encounter was a good deal more personal and aggressive than was the first matchup between President Bush and Senator John F. Kerry on Thursday, said several political analysts interviewed last night, with each running mate playing the attack-dog role typical of the number two spot on the ticket.

"Each brought their weapons of fact destruction," said Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida. "I thought that both candidates played the role of the reinforcer. They said what the presidential candidates did, only louder and stronger. It was a fact-filled evening, each of them tearing the other's facts up and down."

In the end, the analysts said, it was pretty even. The punches were harder, but each of the men landed a few. And neither of them made any gaffes that might bleed into the second Bush-Kerry matchup in St. Louis on Friday night.

The political scientists agreed this debate will make little difference in the presidential campaign.

"The only way in which it makes a difference is that neither one said something that will distract people's attention from what's going to happen on Friday night," said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. "They were both extraordinarily disciplined. One thing they did is, they both acquitted themselves well. They did what they had to do, and Cheney continued to drive home the administration's case that Kerry is not fit to be president, and the Democrats found a couple more chinks in the [Republican] armor. But in the end, they've set up Friday, and there will be no distractions from that debate."

Fowler described the debate as "the prince of darkness meets Peter Pan," and all of the analysts interviewed agreed that Cheney was far more effective at batting back Edwards's criticisms than Bush was at deflecting Kerry's during the first presidential matchup.

"On foreign policy issues, Cheney seemed to have a little bit the better of it," said Bruce Altschuler, chairman of the political science department at the State University of New York at Oswego. "He seemed somewhat more in command of the facts, and to be able to provide specifics. He didn't do as well on domestic issues. He seemed to duck some questions. He answered a question on jobs with an answer on the No Child Left Behind [federal education law]. About gay marriage, he tried to say as little as he could. When he was asked about the AIDS rate among black women, he said he was unaware of it till he heard the question."

But the format favored Cheney, Altschuler said. Because he was seated, Edwards's typically higher energy level was dampened somewhat.

Since most analysts and viewers agreed that Kerry bested Bush in their first debate, Cheney had ground to make up in this debate, and he did it, said Fowler.

"Cheney had the tougher job in some ways," she said. "He had to repair the damage the president created last week, and he did a good job at that. Edwards used the same themes and rhetoric that Kerry used last week, and he introduced a few new twists, the idea that the Republicans had flip-flopped in very serious ways in terms of what they had promised to do with Social Security and protecting the surplus. I thought that was a smart tactic. And Edwards made a valiant effort to address the consistency issue, though I don't think Cheney let him get away with it."

Cheney controlled the pacing of the debate, said Wayne Fields, director of the American Culture Studies Program at Washington University in St Louis. Several times, he finished answering questions before his time was up, and a couple of times he declined to rebut the Democrat. Edwards, by contrast, continually reached back to previous questions, before he answered the current one, Fields said.

"Cheney uses that low-key, uninflected style to project sometimes controlled irritation and indignation, and sometimes he uses it to plow through whatever the attacks of his opponent are," said Fields. "His ability to use a lot of statistics, to make specific references, it is everything the president is not. His concise, rapid presentation was a contrast with Edwards's slower, drawling style, and it was a contrast between experience and youth in some ways. Even when he was not dealing with the specific charges and [avoiding] questions, there is still an authority that comes through with that tone."

Edwards is likely to have come off as more sincere, said John C. Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, who was inside the hall at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where the debate took place.

"Senator Edwards was very effective, very personable," Green said. "I had a feeling he probably connected a little better with viewers than the vice president did, especially when he was talking about domestic policy matters."

But both men probably lost their audiences when their exchanges got personal, Green said.

"There was a certain amount of name-calling going on between the two candidates, and I suspect a lot of American voters might have found that part of debate less interesting," Green said. "Particularly, swing voters don't like name-calling."

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