The VP Debate: An Interlude of Subtle Importance

It is hard to imagine anyone tuning in to the debate between the major party candidates for vice president Tuesday night and getting much of a shock from either the incumbent or the challenger.

Both Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards played to type, neither did much to surprise or break form. Did anyone watching have a Road to Damascus conversion? It seems unlikely. But that does not mean the debate did not matter.

Of the two men, the challenger made the greater effort at presentation. He was not only more animated and empathetic than his opponent, he was visibly trying to restrain his own usual charm offensive. He did smile when he laughed or had an awkward moment, but even then the wattage was way down from his on-stage average. On this night, more than ever, the comparatively young candidate wanted to look serious, even grave. Next to Cheney, it would be easy for someone so naturally ebullient to come off as a chucklehead.

Cheney, too, may have been trying to address his perceived vulnerability, which is the polar opposite of Edwards'. At times, Cheney also allowed himself a smile, albeit one of his tight-lipped and ambiguous ones. When talking about his gay daughter he evinced genuine fondness. When landing a couple of shots against Edwards' absences from the Senate, he managed a look of high dudgeon.

But most of the time, Cheney was mired in his habit of half-speech, half-mumble. He has perfected the air of the chairman, summing up discussion at a board meeting with a recitation of the facts as he sees them. When he finishes, he clearly expects to prevail without further contradiction.

This is a style that suggests a certain disdain for the whole campaign exercise. Cheney seems to regard this as a necessary evil, a prerequisite for holding the power that enables you to execute the policy. Some politicians show more interest in the campaign than anything else. Cheney is in it for what comes after.

Cheney's debating style is also compatible with the strategy the Bush-Cheney camp had decided to take toward certain lines of attack. They knew Edwards would jump on the recent spate of stories undermining the administration's united front on Iraq. They knew Edwards would pounce on Cheney's ties to Halliburton, the global corporation doing billions of dollars of contract work in Iraq. Their strategy toward both issues: Ignore them.

Edwards did make the attacks, as expected. In his first remarks he said the White House had not been "straight with the American people," and cited an array of emerging stories.

Former Iraq administrator Paul Bremer admits he thought the United States had too few troops to pacify the country after the initial success of the invasion. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld concedes he has no hard evidence linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda, let alone to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

It also turns out that the CIA had profound doubts about the justifications for the Iraq invasion, and the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq has determined that Saddam was far from having the weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration used to justify the war.

Cheney did not engage on these points when raised by Edwards or by debate moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS. Instead, he put forward the White House rationale for the Iraqi invasion, noting that the United States had been attacked by terrorists and Saddam Hussein was linked to terrorism.

When Halliburton came up, Cheney said the charges against his former company were false and that Edwards brought them up as a smokescreen for his and John Kerry's spotty records in the Senate. He delivered a chilly, prepared critique of the two senators' absences during the past year of campaigning. Edwards' riposte: a catalog of Cheney's most ideological votes in the House, including his opposition to Head Start and the Martin Luther King holiday. Call this little bloodletting a draw, but it did get Halliburton off the table.

On balance, the debate was probably useful for both campaigns. Many Republicans were no doubt heartened to see their White House stoutly defended by a man who can marshal facts and deliver them with authority. Having Cheney in the breach surely helped stanch the bleeding from the first presidential duel. And the GOP needed some rallying just as the Democrats had prior to the Florida debate.

Edwards, for his part, kept up the assault on the administration's handling of Iraq, ensuring that this issue will remain atop the front page for at least a few more days. He also waxed more eloquent — even as Cheney waned — when the debate shifted subjects to domestic issues.

On Friday, and again next week, the principals will return to the stage to reprise their first meeting in Florida last week. Despite the fact that the Friday debate in St. Louis has a town hall format, President Bush is likely to be measurably more effective this time around. The same will likely be true Oct. 13 in the finale in Tempe, Arizona. In part, this reflects the negative reviews the president got from his first debate, which have lowered expectations significantly. This is the environment in which he has flourished repeatedly in past debates. When little is expected from him, he has often been an effective surprise.

And given the proximity of the election to the last debate, it will be important to be the candidate who plays the "comeback kid" last.

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