If Thursday’s presidential debate seemed pointed, last
night’s debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen.
John Edwards came across as needle-sharp.

From the get-go, the vice presidential candidates jumped more
frequently at opportunities to call one another on what they judged
to be policy inconsistencies and — unlike in the matchup
between Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)
and President Bush — just plain inaccuracies in their
responses to debate questions.

Both candidates jockeyed for position throughout the evening.
Cheney at one point denied Edwards’s allegation that his
administration had ever proposed the idea of any ties between Iraq
and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, executed by al-Qaida
operatives. In fact, he said, the administration has said Saddam
Hussein “had established relationships with” the
terrorist organization sometime during his dictatorship, which
ended following U.S. forces’ invasion of Iraq in 2002.

During the debate, Edwards (D-N.C.) several times used the word
“distortions” to characterize Cheney’s arguments
that Kerry is not fit to fight a war on terror, and that
Edwards’ voting record in the Senate was “not very

“The vice president, I’m surprised to hear him talk
about records,” Edwards said. “When he was one of 435
members of the United States House, he was one of 10 to vote
against Head Start, one of four to vote against banning plastic
weapons that can pass through metal detectors.”

The more heated atmosphere of last night’s debate —
which preceded two more presidential matchups over the next week
— originated from a sharper line of questioning from
moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS’s “NewsHour” than was
delivered by the moderator of the previous debate, “The
NewsHour” Executive Editor Jim Lehrer.

While Lehrer’s first question of last week’s
presidential debate asked Kerry if he could keep the country safer
than could the president, Ifill focused her first question to
Cheney on recent finger-pointing from Paul Bremer, former head of
the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority, that the Bush
administration did not send enough American troops to Iraq.

Some of the most impassioned moments of the foreign policy
section of the debate came in a discussion of the burden of
casualties in Iraq.

Seeking to rouse disdain toward the administration’s
handling of the war, Edwards said U.S soldiers represented 90
percent of the casualties borne by international coalition forces
in Iraq.

Cheney immediately attacked Edwards for not considering the
sacrifice of Iraqi National Guardsmen that have served alongside
coalition troops.

While the candidates were barred from asking questions of one
another, they nonetheless entered into a verbal tussle when
Edwards’s critique of the U.S. war effort caused Cheney to
suggest that Edwards was trying to “demean (soldiers’)
sacrifices” — a statement to which Edwards immediately

Last week’s presidential debates were largely without such

The volleying between the candidates also provided ample
opportunity for errors, many stubbornly repeated.

While Cheney said Kerry’s “no” vote in
February on an $87 billion defense-spending package denied soldiers
in Iraq much-needed body armor, the armor was a tiny fraction of
the cost of the package — less than 1 percent, according to
the University of Pennsylvania database FactCheck.org. Kerry also
did not specifically cast his vote against armor, as the package
entailed a host of other items.

Edwards also implied early in the debate that the Bush
administration had spent $200 billion of tax revenue on the war.
The figure stands nearer to $120 million.

The candidates also locked horns on tax policy. Edwards affirmed
his commitment to tax relief, listing a bevy of tax credits that
Kerry would provide as president. This came despite Edwards’s
promise to cut the deficit in half.

But Cheney said Kerry’s plan to shift the tax burden to
the highest tax bracket would affect many small businesses that
file as individuals and not under the corporate tax code. He said
Bush would make recent tax cuts permanent.

University students and other local residents gathered in the
co-op Canterbury House last night to participate in a debate
viewing organized by the University Arts of Citizenship Program,
which aims to enhance community service with art projects. After
the conclusion of the debate, debate viewers shied away from
endorsing either candidate. Instead, they criticized both sides and
the American political climate.

Debate watchers complained the candidates’ responses were
too scripted and that they did not directly respond to each other
or the questions posed by the moderator. They expressed a desire
for true dialogue, reflection and flexibility in political
discourse. But they acknowledged that the ideal of compromise is
difficult to achieve when candidates must strive to avoid being
seen as inconsistent.

One feature of the debate was a dizzying array of statistics
thrown out by both candidates. Debate watchers said the profusion
of numbers made the debate hard to follow. They compared the
back-and-forth to a tennis volley where the objective was to score
points and not directly engage each other in productive debate.

David Scobie of Arts of Citizenship said the debate-watching
events are aimed at provoking eventual artistic responses. Arts of
Citizenship will be hosting such forums for the two remaining
presidential debates.

Although polls taken around midnight by CNN.com and MSNBC.com on
the candidates’ performances in the debate showed Edwards
with a dramatic edge over Cheney, the effect such polls will have
on the election — in fact, the effect the vice presidential
debate will have on the race — remains up in the air.

Going into tonight’s debate, Kerry and Bush remained in
close competition with each other, with a Newsweek poll giving
Kerry a two-point advantage over Bush in the race, while a
Washington Post poll, taken during roughly the same time period
after the presidential debate, gave Bush an eight-point lead over












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