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Edwards, Cheney take the contest to dead heat

Last updated on: October 06, 2004 21:58 IST

It's been thirty years, almost to the day (the fight took place on October 30, 1974) since Mohammad Ali rope-a-doped George Foreman to boxing oblivion, in Kinshasa, Zaire.

Thirty years on, Ali's successor finally appeared on the horizon... in the unlikely form of Vice-President Dick Cheney, at the Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio, where he took on his Democratic rival John Edwards and fought him to a standstill.

If you read the transcript -- paying careful attention, as the moderator was not -- to what was asked, and whether the answer in fact was responsive to the question, and if you mark scores for points scored, for body blows landed, you'd probably score this fight for Edwards. Cheney landed the showy punches, but it was Edwards who dug for the gut and dug deep.

It's too early for pollsters to come up with their findings, but I'd bet big odds most see it as a tie, or give the edge to one or the other candidate only marginally. And for that result, which contains and helps limit the damage of the disastrous George Bush performance in the first debate last Thursday, the Republicans have Cheney to thank.

Throughout -- make that almost throughout, the off fumble being his visible annoyance at Edwards circling around to Halliburton on every possible cue -- the vice-president remained calm and collected; often, he said what he had to say and stopped with time on his clock; often, when he felt enough had been said, he shrugged a 'no' when offered the extra 30-second rebuttal time.

On one occasion, asked categorically if he thought Edwards was part of the problem of trial lawyers that has led to calls for tort reform, Cheney in patriarchal fashion refused the bait, talking of lawyers in general but refusing to rope in his opponent.

That calm, almost sedative solidity diminished to a considerable degree the digs Edwards was able to make; another factor that resulted in this being a stand-off was Edwards' inability, strange in a top quality trial lawyer, of driving home the rhetorical advantage when he had it.

Moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS, moderator for the day, upped the ante with her very first question when she pointed out that on this day, Paul Bremer, the US-appointed former civilian administrator in Iraq, had criticised the paucity of troops sent to Iraq as being insufficient to do the job right; on the same day, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had admitted that the US was wrong in concluding that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

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It was an awkward moment for the vice-president, since the two statements taken together demolished much of the US case for war, and questioned its conduct of it as well. Cheney -- as Bush had, last Thursday, when the subject came up -- side-stepped the question, painting the war in Iraq as not an adventure in and of itself, but as part of a global war on terror. That response led to the inevitable sparring, with Edwards accusing the Administration of having taken its eye off the Bin Laden war in Afghanistan, and Cheney doggedly bringing the topic back to Saddam Hussein's support of Abu Nidal in the Nineties, and of Al Zarqawi's presence there now.

That was one opportunity Edwards noticeably missed -- when Cheney said Al Zarqawi was in Afghanistan and had since moved to Iraq and was now behind the spate of terrorist attacks there, it sort of begged the question: Who let him in? Why were the Iraq borders not sealed, why were terrorists allowed in at a time when a US led coalition was reportedly on the ground, fighting a war against terror? Edwards jabbed -- but with an opening for a kill, failed.

Edwards, who on that occasion was lacking in offence, seemingly made a bit of a mess early on with his defense as well. Ifill asked the senator to define what John Kerry had said, in the first presidential debate, when he said any US action had to satisfy the 'global test'. The answer was right there, in the full Kerry quote.

What Kerry said that day was, "But if and when you do it, Jim (Lehrer of PBS, the debate moderator), you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons."

Globe equals universe in question equals countrymen equals the US -- it is painfully clear Kerry was saying that any action had to be based on fair assessment and full disclosure that won the approval of Americans themselves -- so what part of 'your countrymen' didn't Bush and Cheney understand?

Instead, Edwards waffled on about how Kerry would never allow foreign powers veto over American security interests, etc, and in the process, let the Cheney charge stand unmet.

Another interesting moment came when Edwards and Cheney -- who, by the way, threw the debate playbook to the winds and addressed each other directly on several occasions, against the rules framed by their own teams -- faced off on casualties. Edwards charged that 90 per cent of the costs and 90 per cent of the casualties in Iraq were being borne by the Americans. To which, Cheney's response was extremely specious. Edwards, he suggested, was dishonoring Iraqis by not taking into account the losses they had suffered in this war.

Hold on a moment -- is Cheney seriously proposing that the number of Iraqis killed, which includes the hundreds or thousands killed by American bombings at the start of the war, had to be added to the coalition's casualty list to make the American numbers look better? It was a duh! moment -- another one Edwards did not really drive home.

The sharpest attacks were reserved for Halliburton, one that Edwards kept returning to over and over, like when Cheney suggested Edwards had taken advantage of tax loopholes and Edwards responded that au contraire, it was Cheney as CEO of Halliburton who should know about overseas tax dodges. Again, Edwards went after the connection when he alleged that during Cheney's stint as CEO, Halliburton had dealt with rogue regimes such as Iraq and Libya. Again, when asked about the famous Kerry vote for $87 bn in military appropriation before he voted against it, Edwards brought it back to the H word, pointing out that the appropriations bill contained a clause for $7 bn to Halliburton.

That was clearly Cheney's weakness, and it showed when he said the record speaks for itself, without offering up a defence. At another point, when Edwards brought up Halliburton again, Cheney came up with an even more indefensible response, when he said Edwards was "bringing up Halliburton to obscure your own record", and talked about the votes Edwards had missed by being absent from the senate. How the two equated, was not clear. What was, was the fact that on this topic Cheney was clearly uncomfortable, and he did not even have the option of cutting lose with an obscenity, as he had done on the floor of the senate when asked by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.

Once the debate got out of the realm of Iraq -- which was around the halfway point -- and cut to other international concerns, such as the Israel-Palestine question, and moved on from there to domestic issues, it appeared that the wind had gone out of the debaters. Edwards -- like Kerry, last Thursday -- displayed a better grasp of facts and figures when discussing issues such as Medicare. But Cheney absorbed most of this and another attack when, on the subject of flip-flopping, Edwards meticulously listed the various Bush positions for and against a Department of Homeland Security, and against the 9/11 commission -- by the simple expedient of staying calm, and repeating the party spin with an air of absolute conviction -- rope a dope, at its very best.

Moderator Ifill came up with some interesting, pointed questions -- in this respect, she scored higher than Lehr whose The News Hour show she is special correspondent for. Where she missed out, though, was in not always hauling the two debaters back on track, when they went off on tangents not dictated by the questions they posed. A classic example, not the only one, was right at the end, when she asked the two candidates to discuss their own capabilities for the job of vice-president. Incredibly, Edwards spent his allotted time revisiting the question of medicare, without a yip from the moderator.

The first Kerry-Edwards debate, thanks to a strong showing by the challenger and an unbelievably inept performance by the incumbent, turned what seemed to be a runaway win for Bush into a dead heat. Tuesday's face off between Cheney and Edwards will cause hardly a ripple, either way, simply because neither side could do telling damage, though both tried.

Prem Panicker in New York