WASHINGTON -Tense skirmishing on the field, but, overall, no runs, no hits, no errors. And the ball goes to St. Louis.
The substantive showdown last night between Vice President Dick Cheney, 63, the low-key, but powerful establishment insider whom President Bush calls the best No. 2 in U.S. history, and Sen. John Edwards, 51, the charismatic newcomer whom Sen. John Kerry says is more than worthy to be a heart-beat away from the Oval Office, was marked by gentlemanly jabs but ultimately ended in a draw.
Neither man gave way. Both men looked tough and firm and sounded tough and firm, doing exactly what they were supposed to do - frame the debate of who should govern in the next four years in terms of stay-the-course [Mr. Bush] or go in a strikingly different direction [Mr. Kerry].
There were no overt fireworks but there were plenty of sharp digs, fodder for partisans on both sides. Both men were quietly emphatic in demeaning the other's facts and conclusions and insisting the other man's agenda is bad for the country.
"The record speaks for itself," Mr. Cheney said at one point.
"A long resume doesn't equal good judgment,'' Mr. Edwards shot back.
Meeting at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in the key battleround state of Ohio, which every Republican president has had to win to get to the White House, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Edwards wrangled primarily over the war in Iraq, the effort to get Osama bin Laden, and the value of the Bush administration's tax cuts.
Each man kept to his script, even when the script had nothing to do with a question.
At one point Mr. Edwards brought up Mr. Cheney's gay daughter and the administration's support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Three days before the second Kerry-Bush debate at Washington University in St. Louis on Friday, last night's verbal fisticuffs occurred in an arena where designated pit bulls reliably went after each other again and again but without drawing blood.
Americans now have a much better idea of who Mr. Cheney is and who Mr. Edwards is, but it will not decide the election.
Last night's encounter featured youth vs. experience but the passion, albeit low-key, was equal on both sides.
While the Nov. 2 contest is between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry and the running mates traditionally do not change the outcome, last night was the first time voters have had the chance to see the two surrogates picked by Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry side by side.
Mr. Cheney, who has a history of heart attacks but last night looked rested and ready, came from the dugout labeled experience, having had some of the most powerful positions in the federal government - chief of staff in the Ford administration, secretary of defense in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, and vice president for the last four years. Mr. Edwards, the good-looking, multimillionaire trial lawyer and champion of the underdog in the courtroom, is still in his first term in the Senate but wants to be president some day. The son of a millworker in South Carolina, he saw his own presidential bid thwarted by Mr. Kerry's snagging of the Democratic nomination.
Sitting in swivel chairs at a half-moon table in an encounter moderated by Gwen Ifill of PBS, the two men dealt head-on with the war in Iraq without swiveling. Mr. Cheney insisted again that Saddam Hussein had established relations with the al-Qaeda terrorist network responsible for the 9/11 attacks and said he would do exactly what the administration has done in Iraq "all over again."
Mr. Edwards counter-attacked, insisting that the deaths of U.S. soldiers are escalating and that the administration is "still not being straight" with the American people. There is "no connection" between the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the regime of Saddam Hussein," he said.
"The senator has his facts wrong,'' said Mr. Cheney.
It was not a night for figuring out how domestic economy might change in the next four years. Asked about Cleveland as one of the poorest American cities, Mr. Cheney said tax cuts are helping. "We are closing the achievement gap," he said.
Mr. Edwards said this administration has lost jobs, not created them.
Last night Mr. Cheney and Mr. Edwards agreed on one point. This country is as divided as it has been in a long time and no matter who wins, that is not likely to change.
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