Wednesday, October 06, 2004

I'll take "Veepstakes" for $100

Interesting that the vice-presidential debate was more animated and weighty than the preceeding presidential debate, even if Cheney and Edwards talked past each other most of the night, instead targeting the head of the opposite ticket. There were no knockout blows equivalent to Lloyd Bentsen's verbal body slam of Dan Quayle in '88, but both candidate got some good licks in.

All things being equal, I think Cheney and the Republicans have to be happy. They entered with diminished expectations and more to lose, and Cheney held his own for the most part. He was able to repeat his campaign attacks on Kerry without sounding like a broken record, and came across as much more articulate and intelligent than Bush did last week. He still isn't very likeable as a person, though, and probably didn't gain much in the public approval ratings. Gwen Ifill really put him on the spot when she asked him point-blank if he thought John Edwards was part of the "trial lawyer problem" the Bush campaign rails against so much. You could almost hear the ice creaking as Cheney's heart froze solid. His response that he wasn't familiar with Edwards' case history was utterly bogus--he is very familiar with it, and it's unassailable. Edwards only represented the "little guy" in cases where corporations grossly overstepped the bounds of common decency. You can bet that if there was any room for doubt, the Bush campaign would be pounding hard on that angle. Cheney is fully aware of Edwards' case history, make no mistake.

Edwards, on the other hand, didn't live up to expectations. Like Kerry last week, I think he tried to cram too many facts and subjects into his answers, which diluted the effectiveness. He was effective in putting the spotlight on Iraq early on, but his attacks against Cheney's Halliburton ties were flailing and surprisingly unfocused. He did a good job on the experience question, avoiding a sure trap by not comparing his experience to Bush's in 2000. You know Cheney had a Bentsen-style haymaker primed and ready in that event, but never got to use it. But for an eloquent, folksy speaker, Edwards did flub a lot of lines and get tongue-tied more than you'd expect. It's easy to dismiss that as nerves, as the Kerry campaign had a lot riding on the veep debate, and for all his court room experience Edwards had never been in such a testy, bare-knuckles debate before. He recovered, and I think made up much lost ground in the final 15 minutes or so of the debate, whenever he touched on areas he'd spoken about a lot during his stump speeches. And even when he fumbled, he was still positive, populist and charismatic as hell. Still, more was expected of as gifted a speaker as Edwards.

Ultimately, as with the previous presidential debate, I think it's a wash. Cheney acquitted himself well enough to stop the Bush team's hemorrhaging in the polls. Edwards didn't boost the Kerry ticket with his showing, but he did well enough to hold things steady and not lose any ground. Now, of course, it comes down to Friday's big town hall-style debate between Bush and Kerry. The winner of that one will more likely than not take the election, no matter what happens in the final debate the following week. We shall see.

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