| Vice-president Dick Cheney (left) and vice-presidential nominee John Edwards during the debate in Cleveland, Ohio. (AFP)
Cleveland, Oct. 6: Iraq and terrorism dominated a hard-hitting and sometimes personal debate last night between the vice-presidential nominees, with vice-president Cheney accusing the Democratic ticket of lacking the judgment to lead, and Senator John Edwards responding that Cheney and President Bush lack credibility.
The lines of attack were drawn in the opening moments of the nationally televised encounter at Case Western Reserve University, with Cheney asserting strongly that the decision to topple Saddam Hussein last year was justified by an 'established Iraqi track record with terror.'
Striking an incredulous air at Cheney's claim, Edwards responded: 'Mr vice- president, you are still not being straight with the American people.'
This set the tone for the 90-minute debate, which featured equally sharp, sometimes snappish exchanges as it turned to such matters as the state of the economy, taxes, tort reform and same-sex marriage.
Cheney rapped Edwards' one term in the Senate, dismissing it as 'not very distinguished' and marked by chronic absenteeism, and Edwards fired back with a review of Cheney's record as a congressman in the 1980s.
Noting that as vice-president he presides over the Senate, Cheney said acerbically to the freshman senator: 'The first time I met you is when you walked on the stage tonight.' Cheney met Edwards twice before, according to the Kerry-Edwards campaign, which e-mailed reporters a photograph.
In defence, Edwards shot back: 'I'm surprised to hear him talk about records,' and pivoted into a discussion of conservative votes cast by Cheney. '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.'
While this peevish exchange turned on somewhat arcane details, in general the candidates engaged in a broad way with the major questions facing the electorate in the November 2 contest between Bush and John F. Kerry.
They clashed over whether circumstances are improving or worsening in Iraq, and whether the US is on the upswing from Bush's policies or is still stalled in a way that has left more people jobless or struggling to deal with rising health costs.
Historically, vice-presidential debates have not figured prominently in general elections, but both campaigns said Cheney's central role in the administration and the tightening contest between Bush and Kerry could make this one an exception.
No matter the electoral implications, the evening lived up to its advance billing as a vivid display of two politicians with widely divergent personal styles, public records and political philosophies. Cheney spoke without inflection, rarely flashed smiles and often looked down during his answers.
Edwards struck a smiling, conversational tone, but there was nothing amiable in his case against Cheney. Repeatedly, he assailed the vice-president's truthfulness.
The most personally intimate exchange of the evening came when moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS asked Cheney, who has a gay daughter, about the administration's support of a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Cheney said that the issue should be in the hands of the states.
In responding, Edwards said: '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.' But then his message became more pointed: 'We should not use the Constitution to divide this country, and it's wrong.'