- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2000

NEWS ANALYSIS

Vice-presidential candidates Richard B. Cheney and Joseph I. Lieberman, in a debate that was subdued and civil, last night stepped up their criticism of each other's agenda as the presidential race sped toward its four final weeks.
In their only debate of the election, the two vice-presidential nominees took a few pot shots at one another's policies, stoutly defended their running mates' proposals and searched for ways to reach out to undecided, swing voters who will decide this election.
But on the whole their even-tempered, unemotional exchange of positions was a cool, almost academic discussion of some of the major issues in the campaign in sharp contrast to previous vice-presidential debates.
Nevertheless, Mr. Cheney, the former defense secretary, struck hard at Vice President Al Gore's targeted tax-cut plan, saying that "50 million taxpayers would get no tax cuts at all" under his proposal.
He also sharply attacked the Clinton-Gore administration's defense policies, saying that they had left the military underprepared, poorly equipped and its services suffering from poor morale.
Mr. Lieberman, who said at the beginning of the debate that he was going to "be positive," accused George W. Bush of seeking to "raid the Medicare trust fund," and said the Texas governor's $1.3 trillion tax-cut plan would plunge the government into debt, and "take us down the road to deficits and higher interest rates."
But Mr. Lieberman clearly appeared to be on the defensive under Mr. Cheney's aggressive attack on the military readiness issue. At one point, he said that it was "not good for our opponents to tear down the military in the midst of a debate."
Mr. Cheney replied that "it seems irresponsible for us not to have this debate on such a serious issue."
For the most part, however, each candidate laid out the positions that have been set forth by the two presidential candidates and they broke little if any new ground on the campaign's major issues from Social Security reform to what to do about the high price of oil and gasoline.
But when Mr. Cheney attacked Mr. Gore for failing to work with Congress on a bipartisan basis, Mr. Lieberman did not seem to have any comeback that could point to a legislative issue on which Mr. Gore led to bring both parties together.
"This administration has not led from a bipartisan standpoint," Mr. Cheney said, pointing to administration's failure to find common ground on Medicare reform.
In the end, Mr. Lieberman could only point to the surging economy as an example of things getting "better than they were seven years ago."
Mr. Bush, watching on television, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, praised his running mate's performance.
"America got to see why I picked this man as my running mate. He's the real thing. He won it hands down," the Texas governor said. "He made the case that it's time for a change in Washington."
Mr. Cheney got in the sharpest dig of the evening when he said that he liked "the old Joe Lieberman better," a reference to Mr. Lieberman's flip-flops on school-choice vouchers and privatizing Social Security.
"I thought the old Lieberman versus the new Lieberman charge was Cheney's best direct hit of the evening," said Republican campaign consultant Gordon Hensley.
"It underscored the flexible nature of the Gore-Lieberman ticket when it comes to consistency on the issues and telling the truth," Mr. Hensley said.
But David Bositis, chief pollster for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, thought that the overall debate "was boring."
"I thought Cheney did a good job, but I think the debate was a draw and that's a plus for the Republicans," Mr. Bositis said.
Mr. Cheney and Mr. Lieberman had two political assignments going into last night's debate: promote their respective presidential running-mates and expose the weaknesses of their opponents.
Both men knew from historical experience that the political stakes were much smaller for their debate the only one they will have in this election than they are for the presidential debates.
Still, the performances they give and the impression that they will make on the voters who tune in will to a large degree reflect on two presidential nominees who picked them.
"Very few people make a voting decision based on the vice-presidential nominee, but nevertheless the vice-presidential selection is meaningful as an indicator of the judgment of the presidential nominee," said Whit Ayres, an Atlanta-based political pollster.
"So these two men can help or hurt their ticket primarily by verifying or undermining the judgment of the men who chose them," Mr. Ayres said yesterday.
Mr. Cheney, who was White House chief of staff under President Ford and held a top House Republican leadership post in the 1980s, has come under a little criticism in the past month for not attacking Mr. Gore more aggressively on the campaign stump.
In picking Mr. Cheney, Mr. Bush was said to have made a "governing choice," choosing him for his vast experience in Congress, the White House and also as defense secretary to help him govern if he wins the presidency. At the time of the selection this summer, Mr. Bush was running well ahead of Mr. Gore in the polls.
But since the race has tightened, Mr. Cheney has been sharpening and escalating his attacks on Mr. Gore especially on the issue of Mr. Gore's character and his tendency to exaggerate or embellish the stories and facts in his speeches and interviews, and most recently in Tuesday's presidential debate.
But both men entered last night's debate knowing that with the presidential race turning into a cliffhanger, this was their biggest chance of the election to land some punches on their opponents.
"They can take tougher shots than the presidential nominees because their own negatives are less relevant than the negatives of the presidential candidates to the ultimate outcome of the election," Mr. Ayres said.
"Many people in the country are just getting to know these people and this is the best opportunity for the vice-presidential nominees to give a majority of the country a good look at them," he said.

Dave Boyer contributed to this article from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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