Ready for his close-up

Will youth and beauty triumph over old age and treachery? John Edwards faces off against Dick Cheney.

Published October 5, 2004 8:56PM (EDT)

Tuesday night's vice-presidential debate is John Edwards' raison d'être as John Kerry's running mate, and no one knows that better than John Edwards himself. After wrapping up a rally in Erie, Penn., Friday evening, the enthusiastic and ever-present campaigner disappeared into debate preparations in Chautauqua, N.Y., emerging just long enough for a photo op among the pumpkins at a nearby roadside produce stand. Asked about debate preparations, Edwards said four words: "Goin' fine, workin' hard."

It's hard to argue with him. After a long, slow slide, the Kerry-Edwards ticket has finally regained the momentum, if not the upper hand, in the presidential campaign. John Kerry dominated George W. Bush in their first debate Thursday night, and the candidates' performances -- Kerry's calm and confident, Bush's stammering and scowling -- have instantly changed the face of the race. The latest New York Times/CBS and CNN/USA Today/Gallup polls have the race tied or nearly so among registered voters. The Washington Post/ABC poll has Bush up by five; Newsweek has Kerry up by two.

The vice-presidential debate was always going to be important; now it's only more so. The Republicans need to stop the bleeding; the Democrats have to hope that the Cheney-Edwards faceoff doesn't kill their momentum. Pretty John Edwards needs to show he's more than the Breck Boy; dour Dick Cheney needs to show that the Republicans offer more than annoyance and fear. For the moment, at least, Democrats think they've got the better of the deal: You know you're in trouble, Kerry advisor Joe Lockhart said Monday, when you've got to ask Dick Cheney to "cheer up" the voters.

Republicans are taking an "ignore the elephant in the room" approach. Karl Rove is still trying to salvage Bush's debate demeanor as "pensive." That deer-in-the-headlights look? It was Bush "pausing" for emphasis. Other Bush advisors are arguing that the debate really didn't make a difference. On a conference call with reporters Monday, Bush-Cheney strategist Matthew Dowd said he always expected the race to be closer than the pre-debate polls would have suggested. "This race trades in a very, very, very tight margin," Dowd said. As for Kerry's sudden upward movement, Dowd said: "We don't dance in the end zone, and we don't cry in our beer."

That said, there was plenty of pre-game trash talking Monday. Although Edwards has never engaged in a one-on-one political debate -- Republican Lauch Faircloth declined to debate in his 1998 Senate race -- Bush-Cheney advisor Mary Matalin said Monday that the Democrat's experience as a "personal injury trial lawyer" would serve him well tonight. Matalin portrayed Edwards as "the man with the golden tongue," a slick lawyer who was picked as Kerry's running mate -- and she's probably right about this -- specifically with the debate in mind.

In Chautauqua, where Kerry-Edwards advisors Bob Shrum and Ron Klain spent the weekend prepping Edwards for the debate, Edwards spokesman Mark Kornblau called Cheney "unflappable" and said that the best anyone could hope for was a "draw." When a reporter on the press bus asked her colleagues how to spell "formidable," Kornblau shouted out: "D-I-C-K C-H-E-N-E-Y."

Cheney was certainly formidable when he debated Joe Lieberman four years ago. The two had a gentlemanly exchange, as befitting two old Washington hands, but Cheney plainly got the better of it. He was all the things that this administration seldom seems to be: thoughtful, reflective, open to thinking about new ideas. He acknowledged that, as a white man, he could never "understand fully" how he would feel about something like "racial profiling." Asked about gay marriage, he said people "should be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to enter into."

That's not the Dick Cheney many voters see today. While Republicans still see Cheney as a rock of experience in the Bush administration, Democrats and independents are more likely to view him as the slightly scary puppeteer who pulls the strings in the White House and profits from it. "The vice president four years ago was an enormous asset to the ticket, someone who filled in the void that George W. Bush had in the course of his six-year public career as the governor of Texas," Kerry strategist Tad Devine said Monday night in Cleveland. "I think we've seen what Dick Cheney's experience has done for this nation. I think there's a powerful argument that Dick Cheney's experience, and the advice he has given the president, has not been good for America."

In the latest Newsweek poll, 47 percent of respondents said they viewed the vice president unfavorably; only 44 percent said they viewed him favorably. Cheney's three-point negative spread is the worst of any of the four candidates: Edwards is at plus-19, Kerry is at plus-12 and Bush is at plus-3.

The Democrats can take some credit for Cheney's popularity problem -- both Kerry and Edwards take swings at Cheney on the campaign trail -- but most of it is self-inflicted. On substance and in style, Cheney has made himself a target for all who distrust the Bush administration. Cheney pushed the hardest for the war in Iraq, and then stretched the truth the hardest to support it. It was Cheney who said that Saddam Hussein had "in fact reconstituted nuclear weapons," Cheney who said that U.S. troops would be "greeted as liberators." And even as others in the administration backed away from attempts to link Saddam Hussein to the attacks of Sept. 11, it was Cheney who kept pushing the lie. He peddled the discredited report that an Iraqi intelligence officer met with hijacker Muhammad Atta in Prague in 2001. He claimed that Iraq had been a base for terrorists, "most especially" the ones who attacked on Sept. 11. And when the 9/11 commission concluded that there was "no collaborative relationship" between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, Cheney said he "probably" knew more than the commission did.

While Cheney has played a central role in the Iraq war, his reach -- and therefore his taint -- has extended much beyond it, too. With his refusal to release records from his energy task force, his continuing paychecks from Halliburton, and his duck-hunting trip with Antonin Scalia, Cheney cemented the Bush administration's reputation for secrecy and cronyism and a certain kind of contempt for anyone who dared to question either. And that was before he told Patrick Leahy: "Go fuck yourself."

Cheney might be able to pull off the man-behind-the-curtain act if he had Bush's social skills -- or at least the ones the president had before last week's debate, when his own inner Cheney seemed to surface. But Cheney lacks Bush's fake folksy charm. He comes off as somniferous in person, a little sinister on TV. His convention speech was not so much a flop as it was a dull thud. And on the stump, where he speaks only to handpicked Republican audiences, frequently in the reddest of red states, Cheney gives little reason to love him. He reads his own life story from the text in front of him, then he launches into a series of attacks on John Kerry, most of them based on the Bush campaign's distortions of Kerry's view. In Cheney's world, a weak and wavering John Kerry would show al-Qaida America's "softer side" and cede control of the military to the United Nations.

On the call with reporters Monday, Matalin dismissed the notion that Cheney has been "combative" on the stump. He has been "reflective and responsive." Just as Rove's Bush is "pensive" and "thoughtful," Matalin's Cheney is "a historian, a scholar," a man who "thinks in generational blocks, in 40-, 50-, 60-year blocks." Matalin called her boss a "substance sponge," and she said he'll be straightforward tonight. "There's no gimmicks," she said. "We're not trying to be fancy or funny or gimmicky."

It was, of course, a not-so-subtle dig at John Edwards. If Democrats see Cheney as Darth Vader, Republicans see Edwards as Tinkerbell. He's a gimmick, a suit, all hair and no head. And it's true that Edwards can come off as a lightweight sometimes; on the big stage of the Democratic National Convention, he seemed stilted and not quite ready for prime time. But in smaller settings -- and tonight's sit-down debate moderated by Gwen Ifill will be about as small as it gets -- Edwards is almost always effective and engaging.

At a campaign rally on the edge of Lake Erie Friday, Edwards opened with high praise for Kerry's debate performance -- "There was one man who owned that stage, and it was not George W. Bush," he said -- then built the energy from there. By the time he drew to a close, riffing for a few minutes on his "Two Americas" theme, the crowd was his. The P.A. man cranked up R.E.M.'s "Orange Crush," and Edwards all but dove into the crowd, pumping his fists and shaking hands. A middle-aged woman screamed with meet-the-Beatles joy after landing a kiss on the senator's cheek.

Earlier in the day in the Dayton suburb of Huber Heights, Edwards kept a few hundred folks enthralled with his populist message. They joined in his call-and-response efforts -- even when it required them to shout out the unshoutable phrase "big drug companies" -- and they laughed at the G-rated Viagra joke he tells at each and every campaign stop.

But when a woman asked him if he'd make Dick Cheney "as red in the face" as Kerry made Bush, Edwards suddenly turned serious. "John set a high standard, and thank goodness he did that because there's so much at stake," he said. "George Bush is a very effective debater. Dick Cheney is a very experienced debater. Both of them are good at this. But what we saw is that the truth and the facts are on our side."

Edwards will never come off as serious as Cheney does, and the format of tonight's debate may prevent him from being as much of himself as he usually is. Democrats have been gunning for the Cheney-Edwards debate for months. In July, when Kerry announced in an e-mail to supporters that he had chosen Edwards to be his running mate, he said not a word about what a terrific job Edwards might do as vice president. Instead, he said he couldn't wait "for the day this fall" when Edwards "stands up for our vision and goes toe-to-toe with Dick Cheney."

But Edwards won't be standing tonight. The Democrats wanted the vice presidential debate to be a town-hall affair. The Republicans demanded a sit-down, interview format; the candidates won't even walk in and shake hands on camera. "We wanted to stand, and he wanted to sit," Edwards said in Huber Heights. "They got what they wanted." The Democrats are using the debate rules as a commentary on Cheney's pull in the White House; if anyone ever doubted Cheney's power, Kerry advisor Devine says, just look at who's doing a town hall -- Bush is, on Friday in St. Louis -- and who's not.

Kornblau said that Edwards won't spend much time tonight arguing that Cheney is in charge of the White House, but he will make sure that viewers think of Bush and Cheney as peas in one deluded pod. On the stump, Edwards says that Bush and Cheney are "the last two people in America" who still think the Iraq war is going well. Kornblau said to expect more of the same tonight.

To prepare for the debate, Edwards spent the better part of three days at the historic Chautauqua Institution, holed up in a small auditorium done up to look just like the room at Case Western Reserve University where tonight's debate will be held. Washington lawyer Bob Barnett played Cheney, and top Kerry advisors Bob Shrum and Ron Klain flew in to watch over the proceedings. The candidate's wife, Elizabeth, was deeply involved when she wasn't in New Hampshire campaigning; one night after midnight, she asked the staff for a transcript of the 2000 vice-presidential debate so that she and Edwards could follow along as they watched a replay of that debate on C-SPAN.

Just as they did with Bush, the Republicans have downplayed Cheney's debate preparations. They said he went fishing on Monday. Although Matalin said Cheney has been a "substance sponge" in debate preparations, she said that he needed no help on "style" points.

Expect Cheney to hit harder on Kerry than he does on Edwards. In the days after Kerry picked Edwards, the Republicans tried hard to brand him as a McDonald's-suing, playground-closing millionaire trial lawyer. The charge didn't get much traction, and the Republicans moved on. Focusing instead on Kerry's military record and his alleged inconsistencies on Iraq, the Republicans have all but ignored Edwards over the last two months. Bush and Cheney mention him only briefly in their stump speeches: a joke about his hair, a dig at Kerry for aligning himself with a trial lawyer (never mind that Bush himself is backing trial lawyer Mel Martinez in the Florida Senate race) -- and a reminder that both Kerry and Edwards voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq and then voted against $87 billion in supplemental funding for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cheney will hit that "flip-flop" charge hard tonight. "We don't expect to do any personal attacks or any personal things," Dowd said, but then he added that he considered Kerry's effort to take "10 or 11 or 12 different stands on Iraq" a "character question."

Both campaigns are prepared for tonight to be contentious, in part because the tension is amped up after the first presidential debate, and in part because the debaters who will share the stage are so different in every way. They won't agree on matters of substance, and they couldn't be more different in style. Someone is going to be uncomfortable with the tenor of the debate tonight, and that someone will lose.

Even so, nobody thinks tonight will, in and of itself, determine the outcome of the presidential race. Lloyd Bentsen wiped the floor with Dan Quayle in 1988, but Michael Dukakis never became president. What the debate can do, however, is shift the momentum. "Momentum ebbs and flows in a presidential campaign," said Devine. "We feel we have real momentum coming out of the first presidential debate, and this is a tremendous opportunity to accelerate that momentum."

Edwards arrived in Cleveland Monday night. He was greeted at the airport by a few hundred sign-waving supporters, and he'll hold a town hall meeting Tuesday afternoon in nearby Parma, Ohio. Cheney will fly in from Jackson Hole Tuesday morning, and he'll remain in an undisclosed location -- even if the campaign isn't calling it that -- until the debate begins.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections