Iraq still big issue in VP debate

CLEVELAND – In a debate at close quarters, Democratic Sen. John Edwards bluntly accused Vice President Dick Cheney Tuesday night of “not being straight with the American people” when it comes to Iraq.

“I’m confident that in fact we’ll get the job done,” insisted the vice president, who said reconstruction efforts are continuing and elections are scheduled for January. Cheney said it is essential to view the war in Iraq as part of a global war on terror.

The 90-minute debate format encouraged give-and-take, and both men went at it eagerly.

Cheney noted that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had opposed the first Persian Gulf War, and said it was “part of a consistent pattern over time of always being on the wrong side of the fence.”

Edwards said Cheney had previously suggested ties between the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. “You’ve gone around the country suggesting that there is some connection. There is not,” Edwards said.

Cheney, 63, and Edwards, 51, sat a few feet apart around a semicircular table on a stage at Case Western Reserve University. Gwen Ifill of PBS, moderator for the evening, faced them.

It was the only debate of the campaign for Cheney and his Democratic opponent.

Kerry and Bush debated for 90 minutes last week in an encounter widely viewed as a victory for the Democratic challenger. The four-term Massachusetts senator has gained ground in the polls in the days since, narrowing the gap with the president in some nationwide surveys and moving into a statistical tie in others.

Bush and Kerry will debate twice more, on Friday in St. Louis and Oct. 13 in Arizona.

In a reprise of comments Kerry made in last week’s debate, Edwards said the United States has paid 90 percent of the costs and suffered 90 percent of the casualties in the war in Iraq.

The figure is “dead wrong,” Cheney replied, adding that the Iraqi security forces have suffered almost 50 percent of the casualties. “Your facts are just wrong,” he said again, for emphasis.

Edwards accused the Bush administration of the “height of hypocrisy,” saying it had sent troops into war without sufficient body armor and by lobbying to cut their pay.

“It’s hard to know where to start, there’s so many inaccuracies there,” Cheney replied.

Cheney also said of Kerry, “I don’t believe he has the qualities needed to be commander in chief.”

The Republican said Kerry voted to authorize the war, then voted against an $87 billion aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan. He said Democratic primary politics were at work at that point. “If they couldn’t stand up to pressures that Howard Dean represented, how can we expect them to stand up to al-Qaida?” he said.

Edwards also charged that Cheney, as the chief executive officer of Halliburton, pushed to lift U.S. sanctions against Iran, did business with countries that were “sworn enemies of the United States,” and that Halliburton paid millions of dollars in fines for providing false information “just like Enron and Ken Lay,” the now indicted former chief.

Cheney accused Edwards of “trying to throw up a smoke screen” and said “there’s no substance to the charges.”

Kerry and Edwards have sought to link Cheney to Halliburton as a symbol of corporate greed and insider connections. Halliburton has reported making more than $7.6 billion so far from U.S. government contracts in Iraq.