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So Far, the Debates Don’t Matter — Especially the Veeps’

[IMGCAP(1)]Vice presidential debates rarely affect the outcome of the presidential contest, and I doubt that the Dick Cheney-John Edwards matchup did, even though Cheney won on points.

The vice president delivered more sound-bite zingers than the North Carolina Senator did and came off as more authoritative. But his chief contribution was to make up for errors made by President Bush in his first debate with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Even though voters, by a wide margin, judged Kerry the winner of last week’s debate, polls indicate that they still regard Bush as the stronger leader in the war on terrorism and prefer him over Kerry.

Cheney successfully attacked Kerry’s record on foreign policy dating back to the 1970s, culminating in the shot, “You cannot use tough talk in the course of a 90-minute debate in a presidential campaign to obscure a 30-year record in the United States Senate. John Kerry has consistently come down on the wrong side of all the major defense issues that he’s faced as a public official.”

While Cheney mentioned it, I thought neither he nor Bush has exploited Kerry’s vote against the 1991 Persian Gulf War as much as he could have.

Both Kerry and Edwards have negatively compared Bush’s conduct of the current Iraq war with his father’s performance in 1991, especially in securing United Nations backing and in forming a robust coalition to fight and pay the costs.

When Edwards did so on Tuesday night, Cheney could have delivered a devastating retort: “And, in spite of all that, and in spite of Saddam Hussein’s ruthless invasion of Kuwait, Senator Kerry still voted against going to war.”

To the extent that voters kept watching despite competition from the baseball playoffs, I thought Edwards performed better than Cheney on domestic issues, especially on health care.

Earlier, his most effective two blasts were against the Halliburton Co. and Cheney’s arch-conservative record as a Congressman in the 1970s and ’80s, voting against Head Start, a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and a resolution calling for the release of South African leader Nelson Mandela.

Cheney only weakly responded to Edwards’ charges that Halliburton did business with Iran and Libya, that it is under investigation for allegedly paying bribes to foreign leaders during Cheney’s tenure as CEO, and that it has been fined by the Securities and Exchange Commission for accounting irregularities.

Edwards, exaggerating, likened the latter to the Enron scandal. But Cheney asserted that “the charges are false,” even though they are confirmed on Halliburton’s own Web site.

What is false is the repeated Democratic charge, made lately in a Kerry campaign ad, that Cheney still has a financial stake in Halliburton and is influencing its acquisition of no-bid contracts in Iraq. Those charges have been exploded on the independent Web site FactCheck.org.

But Edwards’ best verbal thrusts against Cheney basically were echoes to a past that’s not relevant to current concerns.

On Iraq and the war on terrorism, he essentially reiterated Kerry’s claim to have been “consistent” in wanting to hold Hussein “accountable,” as well as Kerry’s argument that the Iraq war was a “diversion” from the war on terrorism.

Cheney revisited the record of inconsistencies by Kerry and Edwards on the Iraq war — voting to authorize it, then against $87 billion to conduct it — and effectively blamed it on their fear of losing ground to anti-war Democrat Howard Dean.

“Now,” said Cheney, “if they couldn’t stand up to the pressure that Howard Dean represented, how can we expect them to stand up to al Qaeda?”

Going into Friday’s second presidential debate, the RealClearPolitics.com average of recent national polls shows Bush holding a narrow lead over Kerry — 1.7 points in a three-way contest with Ralph Nader and just 0.3 percent in a two-way contest.

Those numbers are down from the 5-point lead Bush enjoyed going into the first debate, but the trend of the most recent polls — Fox News and Washington Post/ABC — suggests that Bush has been regaining strength as the memory of the debate fades. Those two polls give him 2- and 6-point leads, respectively.

The Fox poll showed that voters regard Iraq and terrorism as the most important issues facing the country — and on those, Bush outpolls Kerry by 47 percent to 39 percent and 49 percent to 37 percent, respectively.

Before the first debate, Bush was favored over Kerry as the “stronger leader” by 51 percent to 38 percent. Afterward, Bush led by 52 to 38. On the question of who better understands the war on terrorism, Bush led 52-33 in the latest Fox poll.

Kerry, as usual, is on stronger ground on the domestic issues that will gain more attention in the two concluding debates. But he still has hurdles to overcome on foreign policy — and his record doesn’t help.

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