CLEVELAND - Some vice presidential debates have provided memorable moments, but not one has had a measurable impact on a presidential campaign.
Tonight's confrontation in Cleveland between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards could break that pattern by either reinforcing or derailing the apparent momentum the Democratic ticket gained after Sen. John Kerry's face-off with President Bush last week.
In some of the best news for Mr. Kerry since before the Democratic convention, he received strong reviews and his ticket made some gains in at least some of the national polls conducted since the debate on Thursday in Coral Gables, Fla.
In a survey for Newsweek and a poll conducted by the Gallup organization for CNN and USA Today, the race appeared a virtual dead heat, results that were balm for the Democrats after weeks in which Mr. Bush had held a small but consistent lead.
Despite what many saw as a rocky performance by Mr. Bush on Thursday, the Republican ticket maintained its lead in other surveys. Zogby Interactive and Pew Research showed Mr. Bush with leads of 46 percent to 43 percent and 49 percent to 44 percent, respectively. The Zogby numbers were virtually unchanged from a similar survey conducted before the debate.
The Pew results reflected the largest Bush lead of the four polls, but they showed a slight narrowing of the earlier gap between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry. In an ABC News survey, Mr. Kerry made some relative gains on questions about his ability to lead the nation, but Mr. Bush maintained a lead of 51 percent to 46 percent among likely voters, a margin almost unchanged from before the debate.
"We don't have any evidence that vice presidential candidates change votes any more than we do that first ladies change votes," said Barbara Kellerman, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "But this particular debate is likely to have greater interest for two reasons. This is a pretty lively horse race, so anything, even at the margin, could potentially have a greater influence than it otherwise might have, and second, these are two such very different men."
The overall poll results, while mixed, buoyed the spirits of Democrats. The Bush campaign insisted such fluctuations were to be expected in a tight race.
"We don't dance in the end zone, and we don't cry in our beer," Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist with the President's campaign, said. "We said from day one that this race would be close throughout. This race is basically tied today - [just] where we thought we would be."
While poll results are mixed, a strong showing for Mr. Edwards could buttress the self-reinforcing pattern of news stories dominated by speculation on new Democratic momentum.
"[Once] the news narrative and the momentum get jazzed up, it's difficult to stop it from going down the same track," said Susan Tifft, a professor at Duke University. "The other thing is that, as we've seen in this campaign so far, the spinmeisters, the pundits, and the bloggers are going to be sitting there looking for every little crack in either man. As we've seen, these surges can end quickly."
Two politicians with sharply contrasting style, experience, and ideology will face each other across a desk at Case Western Reserve University. Mr. Edwards, the telegenic first-term senator and former trial lawyer, will duel with the stern, taciturn Mr. Cheney, the embodiment of Washington experience.
But there remains uncertainty about the personal dynamics of the encounter.
On the stump this year, Mr. Cheney has often fulfilled the traditional vice presidential role of political attack dog, challenging Mr. Kerry's fitness to be commander-in-chief, even going so far, in one statement that he later retreated from, as to suggest that a Democratic victory would increase the nation's chances of being attacked by terrorists.
It is not clear whether such a snarling persona will show up tonight. Four years ago, Mr. Cheney was the model of civility and collegiality in his debate with Sen. Joe Lieberman.
In the Democratic primaries, Mr. Edwards conducted a relentlessly positive campaign. Since his selection as Mr. Kerry's running mate, he has generally continued to emphasize the positive, but he has recently become more pointed in challenging GOP campaign rhetoric.
Some of Mr. Edwards' Democratic congressional colleagues suggested yesterday that Mr. Cheney would face scrutiny over his ties to Halliburton Corp., the firm that he headed before joining the Bush ticket in 2000.
Mr. Cheney receives some deferred compensation from his years as the firm's CEO, but he has donated his stock option to charity. Independent analysts have concluded that he derives no financial benefit from the controversial no-bid contracts Halliburton has received in Iraq.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) contends Mr. Cheney's residual ties with his old firm betray "a shocking disregard" for appearances.
"Even though it's deferred compensation that's supposed to be insured, why is it that he wants to continue this relationship," Mr. Lautenberg said.
"These allegations, these personal attacks are patently false," said Mary Matalin, a GOP strategist. "Dick Cheney had nothing to do with those contracts."
Republicans are trying to lower expectations on Mr. Cheney's performance. In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Mr. Dowd, the GOP spokesman, repeatedly referred to Mr. Edwards' background as a hugely successful trial lawyer.
"He's a professional debater; we're up against a tough, seasoned debater," Mr. Dowd said.
One challenge for the relatively inexperienced Mr. Edwards is to show that he would be a plausible president.
"The public knows that this is a debate between two men who could step into the office of the president at a moment's notice if something happened," Mr. Dowd said.
Block News Alliances consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette.
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