WASHINGTON – Sandwiched between higher-octane presidential debates, this week’s matchup between Sen. John Edwards and Vice President Dick Cheney pits the Democrats’ chief of cheer against the Republicans’ shrewd and serious second-in-command.
The presidential understudies meet Tuesday at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland for their only debate of the campaign. Their style and substance couldn’t be more different, giving each plenty of material to try to undermine the other and have an impact, however small, on the national campaign.
At 51, Edwards is a boyish-looking Southern senator holding his first elected office who relies on his skills as a former trial lawyer in gauzy campaign speeches and feel-your-pain encounters with voters. At 63, Cheney is a balding Westerner with a long government resume who has embraced the vice presidential nominee’s traditional attack-dog role with relish.
Cheney, with a no-nonsense delivery from the side of his mouth, focuses on the continuing danger from terrorist attacks as reason to keep President Bush at the nation’s helm. Edwards, flashing a high-wattage smile, emphasizes his working-class roots in offering a can-do vision of a John Kerry presidency.
While vice presidential debates typically have little influence on the race overall, there could be extra interest in this faceoff given the stark contrast between the rivals, Cheney’s status as one of the most powerful vice presidents in history and the intense criticism he has drawn from Democrats.
“It’s more a curiosity than a dealmaker or dealbreaker,” said Timothy Walch, director of the Hoover Presidential Library and an expert on the vice presidency.
Edwards, with proven skill at lobbing sharp attacks without turning off the charm, can draw on more than two decades of courtroom practice at persuading juries to side with personal injury complainants.
But he must avoid coming off as a young upstart who is disrespectful of an elder statesman. If the North Carolina senator goes over that line, he risks playing into the Republican argument that he lacks the gravitas and foreign policy experience for the job.
Cheney, who served as President Ford’s chief of staff at age 34, spent five terms in Congress and served as secretary of defense during the 1991 Gulf War, will be hard to unnerve.
He could well face questions about allegations of conflict of interest that arose after Halliburton Co., which he once led, won no-bid contracts in Iraq. Other likely topics include his claims that Saddam Hussein had ties to the al-Qaida terrorist network and that a Kerry victory would make the nation more vulnerable to a terrorist attack.
Experts say the caricature of Cheney is so extreme that people will be pleasantly surprised if he cracks a few dry witticisms and appears reasonable, as he did in a good-natured debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman in 2000.
“People have such a negative view of him, I like to joke that all he has to do is show up without horns,” said Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University and author of a book on the vice presidency.
Cheney also must gauge how far to take his attacks: He could try to paint Edwards as a money-chasing trial lawyer, or skewer him on his Iraq votes, but he needs to avoid turning off voters by appearing too extreme.
Edwards, who has never debated one-on-one, rarely gets defensive. But with a reputation honed in the multi-candidate primary debates as the nice guy in the race, he could suffer if he doesn’t effectively answer when attacked.
The agreed-upon format has the candidates sitting at a table rather than standing. That helps neutralize any physical advantage for Edwards over Cheney, whose history of four heart attacks has prompted occasional questions about whether he should be first in line to occupy the Oval Office.