John Edwards earned his place on the Democratic ticket tonight.
In a testy debate, the untested Edwards clearly held his own against the ultimate elder statesman. However marginal in the big picture, this was a pretty good night for the Democrats.
My gut seems to be confirmed, if fleetingly, by a CBS News poll of uncommitted voters who watched the debate. It found that 41 percent said Edwards won, 28 percent said Cheney won. Thirty-one percent said it was a tie.
Last week, Kerry won the battle of the instant polls and then kept the momentum and the winner's crown through the week and into the big national polls. This is more than Al Gore was able to do after he won the quickie polls after the first debate in 2000. Edwards' job was to keep that momentum going and perhaps add a few points. He certainly didn't hurt the cause and he didn't allow Cheney to clearly turn the debate tide.
Like the first Bush-Kerry debate, this one was free of mega-gaffes and meltdowns. It was certainly civil, not exactly uplifting and antagonistic enough to be quite riveting. It certainly was not the collegial civics lesson that Lieberman and Cheney staged four years ago, but a fast-paced, aggressive, well-informed argument.
As always, Cheney was cucumber calm and serious in statesman-like way; but for much of the debate he appeared grumpy, petulant and tangled up. He didn't make Edwards look like a rookie. In short, Cheney blew the gravitas gap.
As they got deeper into the thicket, and into the domestic issues that should have been his strength, Edwards seemed to lose his way. Strong start, weak finish.
But the Democrats, I sense, got the basic image they wanted implanted in a few undecided minds. If it wasn't exactly Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader, there were moments that were pretty gosh darn close to George Bailey vs. Mr. Potter in "It's A Wonderful Life.".
Edwards had more bite than George Bailey, though, and came out swinging.
In his first answer, Cheney gave a broad defense of the administration's terror policy. Edwards pounced: "Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people."
Cheney responded with a meandering litany of the progress made in Iraq and didn't land a clear counter-punch until later, when he used the flip-flop material: "You're not credible on Iraq because of the enormous inconsistencies that John Kerry and you have cited time after time after time during the course of the campaign. Whatever the political pressures of the moment requires, that's where you're at."
Cheney also said, "The senator has got his facts wrong. I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11."
Well, on NBC's "Meet the Press" in 2003, Cheney said that with a victory in Iraq, "we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11." And Cheney has said sveral times publicly that the lead hijacker of 9/11, Mohamed Atta, met with Iraqi intelligence agents in Prague.
Edwards pushed the veracity envelope too by exagerating the cost of the war and implying 40,000 soldiers there had no body armor.
Stylistically, Edwards was hyper-articulate, animated, crisp - every bit the courtroom maestro that he was reputed to be. Cheney seemed to get bogged down in corrections and though he was clear, he was rarely in a persuasive mode -- his perma-sneer didn't help.
Cheney did throw the big punches, but they didn't hit hard often. "Your facts are just wrong, Senator," he said in an exchange about the costs and casualties of the Iraq War, without much backup. He said there is "no indication" that Kerry has the "conviction" to lead the war on terror. He called Edwards' Senate record "undistinguished."
Cheney got a bit hotter when he said that since Kerry and Edwards couldn't stand up to Howard Dean and stick to their votes to authorize war, how could they stand up to al Qaeda? Other pundits have already declared this the "killer quote." But it didn't really shiver my timbers.
Cheney said Edwards missed so many votes and was such a lightweight that he never even met him until they walked on to the stage in Cleveland. Democrats said that isn't actually true; if they're right, it's a bad thing to lie about.
When Edwards flatly declared that the administration was "for outsourcing," Cheney gave him a pass on a specious charge. Twice Edwards declared that a "long resume" didn't make for good judgment and twice it went unanswered. Similarly, he had no good response when Edwards performed a surgical strike on Cheney's votes against Head Start and a Martin Luther King holiday when he was in the House.
Edwards had some missteps. He botched two squishy softball questions at the end about his qualifications for office and his differences with Cheney. His closing argument was an overwrought dose of economic pessimism that seemed off the mark on a night dominated by national security.
Edwards had to defend himself against charges of flip-flopping, missing votes and not being distinguished. Cheney had to defend himself against charges of lying about about a war that his administration mismanaged. Cheney's job was harder. Big time.
Cheney made one admission that startled me. Toward the end, he expressed his "disappointment" that the administration had not been able to have the kind of bipartisan success Bush had as governor of Texas. Cheney said Washington used to be able to work together more. An honest admission; a serious failure.
And Edwards clobbered him: "The president said that he would unite this country, that he was a uniter, not a divider. Have you ever seen America more divided? Have you ever seen Washington more divided? The reality is it is not an accident. It's the direct result of the choices they've made and their efforts that have created division in America."
The Bush-Cheney forces tried hard to pre-spin Edwards' debate skills. During the pre-game show, Bush campaign strategist Mathew Dowd said of Edwards, "He's not a politician who debates; he's a debater that then became a politician. He's very good, very smooth." He was indeed.
But contrary to Republican wishes, I don't think Edwards came off as a slicky-boy or a mere performer. And I don't think Cheney came off, as Republicans had hoped, as a great and wise man by the contrast.
It's too bad we can't see these two go at each other a few more times.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer