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VP Debate: Age Before Beauty?

Don't expect to hear complaints about Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee.

Vice President Dick Cheney and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Edwards, go head to head in a debate in Cleveland on Tuesday night. The two political combatants differ sharply in style and substance. As a result, voters should have no difficulty in drawing clear contrasts between the two men.

The Washington Post reports that GOP officials are hoping Cheney can halt the slide in political momentum generated by President Bush's lackluster debate performance against John Kerry. Mr. Bush's lead over Kerry has evaporated since their debate last week, according to two new polls.

The GOP is also hoping for a repeat of 2000, when Cheney emerged the victor in his debate with then-Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman.

The Post reported that Cheney will attempt to steer clear of a narrow focus on the decision to invade Iraq and instead look to highlight the administration's performance in the broader war on terrorism.

At 51, Edwards is a boyish-looking Southerner holding his first elective 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 Mr. 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' challenge is to rattle his opponent and try to feed the Democrats' characterization of the vice president as pulling Bush too far to the right. Edwards, with proven skill at lobbing sharp attacks without turning off the charm, can draw on more than two decades of courtroom practice at cajoling 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 will play into the Republican argument that he lacks the gravitas and foreign policy experience for the job.

Cheney, who served as President Gerald 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 insistence that Saddam Hussein had ties to the al Qaeda 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 multicandidate 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.

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