CLEVELAND — Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards traded blows last night over Iraq and the Democratic ticket’s Senate voting records in the first and only debate between the vice-presidential candidates.
Mr. Edwards quickly accused Mr. Cheney of “not being straight with the American people” and repeatedly hammered at the Bush administration for denying that “Iraq is a mess, and it’s getting worse.”
But unlike President Bush last week, Mr. Cheney vigorously went after the Senate voting records of Mr. Edwards and, especially, of Sen. John Kerry, accusing them of being weak on defense and of shifting their positions on the war in Iraq based on prevailing political winds.
“Your rhetoric, Senator, would be a lot more credible if there was a record to back it up. There isn’t,” he said of the senator’s claims that a Kerry-Edwards administration would be tough on terrorists.
He said the senators’ words on the campaign trail count for little when compared to their long-standing opposition to military-spending bills and the use of force, mentioning Mr. Kerry’s history of “cutting most of our major defense programs” and his opposition to the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
“You cannot use ‘talk tough’ during the course of a 90-minute debate in a presidential campaign to obscure a 30-year record in the United States Senate and prior to that, by John Kerry, who has consistently come down on the wrong side of all the major defense issues that he’s faced as a public official,” Mr. Cheney said.
As the two men met center stage at Case Western Reserve University last night and shook hands, Mr. Edwards smiled and said, “Good to see you.” But the courtliness ended there.
“Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people,” were the first words out of Mr. Edwards’ mouth, issued after Mr. Cheney gave moderator Gwen Ifill of the Public Broadcasting System his assessment of the situation in Iraq.
Mr. Edwards said the United States was carrying too much of the financial and human cost in Iraq, adding that although Saddam Hussein “needed to be confronted, … it needed to be done the right way.”
He also accused the Bush administration of exaggerating how much allies are helping.
“Ninety percent of the coalition casualties, Mr. Vice President, the coalition casualties, are American casualties,” Mr. Edwards said. “Ninety percent of the costs of this effort are being borne by the American taxpayers.”
The sedate Mr. Cheney responded with his strongest burst of low-key indignation, saying Mr. Edwards’ comments were a “classic example” of how the Democrats have belittled the members of the 30-nation alliance that Mr. Bush formed.
“He won’t count the sacrifice and the contribution of our Iraqi allies,” Mr. Cheney said, pointing out the 90 percent figure is only true if Iraqi casualties are not taken into account, in which case the U.S. share is about 50 percent.
“It’s their country. They’re in the fight,” Mr. Cheney said of Iraq’s new government. “They’re increasingly the ones out there putting their necks on the line to take back their country from the terrorists and the old regime elements that are still left.”
Mr. Edwards said it was “not just me that sees the mess in Iraq,” pointing to critical comments by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana.
He also used the recent statements of L. Paul Bremer, the man who Mr. Bush picked to lead the provisional government in Iraq after the war.
“Paul Bremer said yesterday they didn’t have enough troops to secure the country,” Mr. Edwards said. “They also didn’t have a plan to win the peace. They also didn’t put the alliances together to make this successful. We need a fresh start.”
Mr. Cheney accused Mr. Edwards at one point of shirking his Senate job to run for higher office, noting that his hometown paper called him “Senator Gone.” Mr. Cheney also noted the number of times that he — as president of the Senate — has gone to the chamber to cast a tie-breaking vote.
“I’m up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they’re in session. The first time I ever met you was when you walked on this stage tonight,” Mr. Cheney leveled. “His record speaks for itself, and, frankly, it’s not very distinguished.”
Mr. Cheney added that Mr. Edwards has missed 33 of 36 Judiciary Committee meetings and almost 70 percent of Senate Select Committee on Intelligence meetings.
“You’ve got one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate,” the vice president said.
Mr. Edwards called it a “complete distortion of my record,” but did not explain further. Instead, he attacked Mr. Cheney for voting against “Meals on Wheels” for seniors and other popular social programs when he was a U.S. representative from Wyoming.
The North Carolinian also cited Mr. Cheney’s votes as a U.S. House member against Head Start and a ban on plastic weapons that can pass through metal detectors, a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King and a resolution calling for Nelson Mandela’s release from a South African prison.
Mr. Edwards also defended his relatively short political biography.
“One thing that’s very clear is that a long resume does not equal good judgment,” he said. “I mean, we’ve seen over and over and over the misjudgments made by this administration.”
Mr. Cheney defended the administration’s decision to go into Iraq, saying the war on terror requires the country to go after terrorists as well as countries that host them.
“What we did in Iraq was exactly the right thing to do,” Mr. Cheney said. “The world is safer with Saddam Hussein in jail.”
Mr. Cheney accused Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kerry — who voted to authorize the war but voted against a funding bill for the war — of “enormous inconsistencies” on the war in Iraq.
He said the Democrats’ pro-war vote came when the war was a popular option and their anti-war vote came during the Democratic primary, when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was dominating among the more liberal voters with his anti-war candidacy.
“If they couldn’t stand up to the pressures that Howard Dean represented, how can we expect them to stand up to al Qaeda?” Mr. Cheney said.
Mr. Edwards said he and Mr. Kerry have a record of supporting military and intelligence spending, but Mr. Cheney was not convinced.
“A little tough talk in the midst of a campaign, or as part of a presidential debate cannot obscure a record of 30 years of being on the wrong side of defense issues, and they give absolutely no indication, based on that record, of being willing to go forward and aggressively pursue the war on terror,” Mr. Cheney said.
Even before the debate began last night, press releases began flying through the hall where reporters were watching the debate.
Democrats handed out a booklet called “Hallibuttal,” a 10-page pamphlet of cartoons chronicling Mr. Cheney’s association with Halliburton.
As expected, Mr. Edwards connected Mr. Cheney with Halliburton, the company that he once headed and that is under investigation for overcharging the government in contracts for Iraq’s reconstruction.
Mr. Edwards said the company “did business with terrorists” in Iraq and Iran, and said he’s let the “voters make up their minds” on whether it has a bearing on the Bush-Cheney ticket.
Mr. Cheney, however, said, “There is no substance” to the charges, adding that the Democrats bring up the issue as a distraction.
“The reason they keep mentioning Halliburton is because they want to throw up a smoke screen,” Mr. Cheney said, who appeared to get more annoyed with Mr. Edwards as the night wore on. “They know the facts are wrong.”
A less combative moment came when Miss Ifill asked Mr. Cheney to describe the differences between himself and Mr. Edwards, who never tires of telling the story of his modest youth as the son of a textile-mill foreman who was the first in his family to go to college.
Mr. Cheney said he thought there were probably more similarities than there are differences in their personal stories.
“I don’t talk about myself very much, but I’ve heard Senator Edwards and as I listen to him I find similarities,” he said, adding that he, too, was the first in his family to go to college. “I carried a ticket in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers for six years. I’ve been laid off, been hospitalized without health insurance. So, I have some idea [of] the problems that people encounter.”
Mr. Edwards’ closing statement focused on his upbringing in South Carolina, telling the story of watching his father by the glow of the television in the kitchen, learning math to better himself — the closest he came last night to mentioning his signature “Two Americas” stump-speech theme.
“I have grown up in the bright light of America, but that light is flickering today,” Mr. Edwards said, speaking to the camera. “Now, I know that the vice president and the president don’t see it. But you do.”
In the moments after the debate, Democrats and Republicans offered reporters to give their assessment of who won and lost the debate.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Americans saw in Mr. Edwards a man who is “youthful, optimistic and hopeful.” He also acknowledged, however, that, “Clearly, I think, Dick Cheney looked better than George Bush did.”
Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry will debate twice more, on Friday in St. Louis and Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz.