Both campaigns think that what has been dubbed the “Shrek vs. Breck” debate tonight in Cleveland between Vice President Dick Cheney and Democratic Sen. John Edwards will have more importance than usual, with the race tightening just 28 days before Election Day.
Democrats are brimming with confidence after Sen. John Kerry’s performance on Thursday night, and campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart said he thinks Mr. Edwards can further cut into the Bush-Cheney ticket’s lead by charging corruption regarding the vice president’s ties to Halliburton and its contracts for Iraq’s reconstruction.
The Bush campaign, meanwhile, is not worried about what it considers “false and baseless attacks” on Mr. Cheney, because it would give the vice president an opening to show that the Bush administration, unlike the Democrats, focuses on what matters in the field of national security.
The campaign also would like to remind the tens of millions of voters watching about Mr. Edwards’ background as a trial lawyer, a line of attack by Republicans that has gained little traction so far, but could have more impact coming from Mr. Cheney and with Mr. Edwards in the national spotlight.
“John Edwards was picked because he was a successful personal-injury lawyer,” Bush campaign chief strategist Matthew Dowd said. “He’s had an unbelievably good record of winning personal-injury awards. This was a person who was basically paid to debate in front of juries, so he’s a professional debater.”
The contrast between the gruff Mr. Cheney and the well-coifed Mr. Edwards led the ABC News political site “the Note” to refer to the debate as “Shrek vs. Breck” — a reference to the animated movie ogre and to conservative disparagement of Mr. Edwards as “the Breck girl” because of his good looks.
A poll released by Annenberg yesterday showed that registered voters, and particularly political independents, have a more positive view of Mr. Edwards than they do of Mr. Cheney.
Just 37 percent of 1,515 persons polled over the weekend had a favorable view of Mr. Cheney, and 42 percent had an unfavorable opinion. Mr. Edwards did slightly better with all registered voters, with a 38 percent favorable rating and 31 percent unfavorable.
However, among independents, 32 percent expressed a favorable view of the vice president and 50 percent had an unfavorable opinion. Mr. Edwards enjoyed a higher favorability rating of 39 percent, and 27 percent viewed him negatively.
The Kerry campaign hopes the acerbic and unglamorous Mr. Cheney will drive those numbers further down with tonight’s high public exposure.
“The vice president is in a bit of a box because of the president’s performance,” Mr. Lockhart said.
“The president came off as somewhat petulant, annoyed. We saw the scowl and the growl. It’s pretty tough when you want to turn to Vice President Cheney and say the country wants to be cheered up,” Mr. Lockhart said.
The former Clinton administration press secretary said Mr. Edwards will insist that Mr. Cheney has “questions he has to answer” about benefiting financially from the war contracts awarded the company he once headed.
“We have an open mind for what the explanation may be, but he doesn’t ever answer the question,” Mr. Lockhart said in a conference call with reporters yesterday.
The strategy to go after Mr. Cheney’s Halliburton ties dovetails with a campaign ad that Mr. Kerry debuted in mid-September. But the Bush campaign pointed to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania that calls the attacks false.
“The fact is, Cheney doesn’t gain a penny from Halliburton’s contracts,” said a press release from the center’s Web site, www.factcheck.org. “The [Kerry campaign’s] ad claims Cheney got $2 million from Halliburton ‘as vice president,’ which is false.”
Mr. Cheney received $1.6 million upon leaving the company, as required by law when he joined the Bush ticket for the 2000 election. He has donated all of his stock options to charity, options over which he could not legally have kept control as vice president.
Democrats, however, have compared Mr. Cheney’s ties to Halliburton to the kickback scandal that cost Vice President Spiro Agnew his job in 1973 and have suggested that Mr. Cheney has committed crimes.
Bush campaign spokeswoman Mary Matalin scoffed at such talk and suggested that the Democrats are focusing on the issue to fire up their Bush-hating base.
“They seem to not want to know the truth,” said Mrs. Matalin, who added that Mr. Cheney has spent little time preparing to answer Halliburton attacks. “The allegations, the personal partisan attacks are demonstrably false.”
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said the more Mr. Edwards focuses on Halliburton, the more time Mr. Cheney will have to convince voters that the Bush team is the only one serious about fighting the war on terror.
“If they want to talk about Halliburton, that’s up to them,” Mr. Schmidt said. “This is an opportunity for us. I believe the American people will reject the baseless attack, and it will be interesting to see how vigorously John Edwards pursues it.”
A major task for Mr. Cheney will be to refocus the campaign on the administration’s war on terrorism and on the danger of changing course from the president’s aggressive stance, which included deposing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
“That is stark contrast to what Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards want to do, which is taking us back both on the war on terror and on the economy to the pre-9/11 days,” Mr. Dowd said.
“It should be a very good contrast between the policies of the president and the vice president and the policies and plans, as you can figure them out, that Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards want to accomplish,” he said.
Republican political strategist Charlie Black, an unofficial adviser to the Bush-Cheney campaign, said Mr. Bush “missed a couple of opportunities” to attack Mr. Kerry’s record in the Senate, adding he expects Mr. Cheney to make up for it.
“Cheney will be, as he always is — very good,” Mr. Black said. “He won’t miss opportunities, and he won’t miss a beat. Edwards will wave his arms and be dramatic in a trial-lawyer fashion, and the people will see the contrast and determine that they want Bush and Cheney in charge of this country’s security.”
Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.