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Cheney and Edwards Face Off in Vice Presidential Debate

October 5, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For a preview of the two candidates’ strategies going into tonight’s debate, we turn to two New York Times reporters who have been covering them. Randall Archibold has been on the trail with Sen. Edwards. Richard Stevenson has covered vice president Cheney at the white house and on the stump.

Welcome to you both. As you all know it’s often said that vice presidential debates don’t make much of a difference, but Dick Stevenson, how do the Cheney folks see it in terms of what the stakes are for tonight’s debate in effecting the momentum and direction of this campaign?

RICHARD STEVENSON: Well I think you put your finger right on it there. The big macro political point for them here is to try to halt whatever momentum the Kerry-Edwards ticket got out of last Thursday’s debate when President Bush underperformed even by the reckoning of his own advisors.

Secondarily I think they want to have Cheney make the case more effectively than Bush did last week in drawing a distinction between the way that Kerry would approach foreign policy and fighting terrorism in particular, and the way that Bush has and the kind of record that Bush has posted on that in a post 9/11 world. Those are really the two big things they’re seeking to accomplish here.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Randy Archibold, how do the Edwards people see the stakes for tonight?

RANDAL ARCHIBOLD: Well, I think they’re looking at this as an opportunity to show that John Edwards is ready to be the vice president. He doesn’t have as much experience in government as Mr. Cheney, but he has been in the Senate for nearly six years.

They want to make sure that people understand that he has a command of international and national affairs and can deliver the campaign’s message in a powerful, effective way. I think they’re also looking….

MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead.

RANDAL ARCHIBOLD: I’m sorry.

MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead.

RANDAL ARCHIBOLD: I think they’re also looking at him to rebut some of the things President Bush has said about Mr. Kerry, particularly his foreign on the campaign trail and also sort of set up the next series of debates, the next couple of debates with critique of the Bush record on the economy and health care.

MARGARET WARNER: Dick Stevenson, how did the vice president go about preparing for tonight’s debate?

RICHARD STEVENSON: Well, he was up at his house in Jackson Hole, Wyoming since Friday. They set up a mock debate stage there where he sat at a table against a stand-in for Sen. Edwards played by Congressman Rob Portman of Ohio. They threw him questions. They worked on the lines that he’ll use and so forth. Pretty standard debate prep.

They came out of it saying the vice president is not going to come into this trying to be funny or gimmicky or anything, that he’s going to play to type. He’s going to be sober and serious and talk about policy in a pretty heavy, serious way.

MARGARET WARNER: What did they say about who will be the main target for him? Is it Sen. Kerry or is it Sen. Edwards?

RICHARD STEVENSON: Well, I really think it’s going to be almost entirely Sen. Kerry. You know, elections really don’t turn on vice presidential candidates. A lot of what Vice President Cheney does when he’s out on the campaign trail is go after Sen. Kerry on his record particularly on foreign policy to portray him as too weak, too waffling, to handle the challenges of protecting the nation after 9/11.

One Cheney advisor told me last week that what Cheney is going to try to do here is really bring 9/11 and the turning point that that was in American foreign policy back into the presidential campaign in a way that Bush didn’t last week in the debate on Thursday night.

MARGARET WARNER: In a way they probably felt was lost last Thursday night. Randy Archibold, how did Sen. Edwards prepare for tonight?

RANDAL ARCHIBOLD: Sen. Edwards has been preparing for weeks during down time on the campaign trail. He, the past two-and-a-half days, spent time at a retreat in southwestern New York about 30 miles from the Pennsylvania border secluded with a number of top campaign aides.

He had Bob Barnett a powerful Washington lawyer playing the role of Dick Cheney as he did for Senator Joseph Lieberman in 2000. And they went through a couple mock run-throughs of the actual conditions at the debate tonight.

MARGARET WARNER: To what degree will his target be President Bush or Vice President Cheney?

RANDAL ARCHIBOLD: Sen. Edwards, it looks like, will be very anxious to link Dick Cheney and President Bush together. On the campaign trail, Sen. Edwards has really tried to connect Dick Cheney to what they see as the failings of the Bush record. You’re likely to hear the word “Halliburton” tonight.

You’re likely to hear comments about Paul Bremer’s assessment of the number of troops early on in the war where he said that he felt there weren’t enough troops when he got into Iraq. That’s surely to come up tonight.

Sen. Kerry brought it up on the campaign trail today and said to the effect that Vice President Cheney has to be held accountable for that.

MARGARET WARNER: And Dick Stevenson, what are the Cheney people saying will be his major thrust on Iraq, if Sen. Edwards come at him as Sen. Kerry did last week about just overall mismanagement of the war and the occupation?

RICHARD STEVENSON: Well, I think it will be really interesting. First, I think a lot of people are going to be listening very carefully to see whether Cheney in any way acknowledges mistakes, too much optimism about what would happen in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Have you been… let me just ask you. Have they tipped you off as to that in your reporting? Do you know?

RICHARD STEVENSON: I don’t know. There is a lot of talk among Republicans about that. We’ll see in a couple of hours. But, you know, there’s a fascinating back drop against which Cheney has to perform tonight. We have all the violence in Iraq that continues unabated day by day by day.

You had Ambassador Bremer quoted in the newspapers this morning as suggesting that the administration failed to put enough troops on the ground there. You had Secretary Rumsfeld yesterday suggesting that there wasn’t a link between… that there wasn’t firm evidence of a link between Iraq and al-Qaida, although he later walked back from that statement.

A lot of things… oh, and the report tomorrow coming out finally saying that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. All of these things Cheney is kind of on the wrong side of the… of where the news is going now. And I’m sure Edward s is going to try to press him on all of those points. He’s going to have to have answers to all of those things. I’m sure he’s well prepared to do so.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Randy Archibold. Back to Edwards. What do the Edwards’ people think is his greatest strength as a debater and what is the pitfall they say he needs to avoid?

RANDAL ARCHIBOLD: His greatest strength is he has a way of… a way with words. He has 20-plus years’ experience in the courtroom, making… boiling down complicated arguments into simple, passionate phrases and ways that connect with people and make people understand his point. Among his weaknesses is, you know, they’re clearly guarding against overconfidence.

They don’t want him to come out and, you know, not appear presidential and they want to make sure that he comes across as someone ready for this job.

MARGARET WARNER: And Dick Stevenson, same question for you of Vice President Cheney briefly. What do the Cheney folks think is his greatest strength and what pitfall do they acknowledge he needs to try to avoid?

RICHARD STEVENSON: I think they see his greatest strength as being his earnestness, his substantive grasp of all of the issues, his experience. They worked very hard in the debate negotiations to make sure that the format for tonight was the two candidates sitting at a table with a moderator, having what amounts to a reasoned conversation.

Cheney is not great from behind the lectern. He’s not great at whipping up crowds. But he’s good on the Sunday morning TV shows. He’s very serious and sober and focused.

MARGARET WARNER: And do they see any pitfall?

RICHARD STEVENSON: Well clearly there are a lot of hard questions that Edwards is going to try to turn the conversation to. He’s going to have to walk through a lot of tricky situations.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you both very much.

JIM LEHRER: Still to come on the NewsHour tonight: The flu vaccine crisis, Shields and Brooks, and vice presidential debates past.