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Trials and Fibulations

We can debate whether or not John Edwards beat Dick Cheney in the vice-presidential debate. What is certain, however, is that as a debater Edwards beat the hell out of- John Kerry. And, for that matter, cranky old Cheney did better than his junior partner, George W. Bush.

So maybe that’s the headline of this response. In a campaign that has been deadlocked, this debate resolves little ---– at least in terms of public opinion. As to reaction among hard-core partisans, well, this week it was the turn of Republicans and conservatives to be reassured by their home boy’s performance. Last week, it was panicked Dems who were resuscitated by Kerry’s strong showing.

Make no mistake. I’m not calling last night’s debate a draw. My personal view is that Edward’s cleaned Don Cheney’s clock (and I do this by way of disclosing a certain fondness for Edwards that can’t always be sustained by the facts). I found Edwards to be a smooth and practiced litigator who scored point after point, leaving Cheney with no answers and no recourse other than slashing attacks and the fear-mongering mantra that somehow a Kerry administration would meekly surrender to terrorists.

To Cheney’s long resume you can firmly add: Slasher.

I’ve never thought Halliburton to be much of an issue, beyond the Pacifica Radio audience, but I likewise think that Edwards drew blood on that issue tonight. Edwards’ closing statement was also quite artful. He forcefully suggested the sharpening of inequality in the Age of Bush but managed to keep that message tightly framed in an almost naïve optimism about American Opportunity.

Both Tom Brokaw and my wife agreed that Cheney came off as a stern and grumpy high school principal, one quick to whip out the paddle. No question that Cheney’s best aimed thwack was when he swatted Edwards for being "Senator Gone" – claiming he has never as much as bumped into Edwards on the Senate floor.

Credit Cheney for a well-planned and executed attack. Shame on Cheney for this factoid tossed out in the post-debate spin storm by Senator Pat Leahy: Cheney, indeed, does come to the Senate chamber every Tuesday. But he meets only with Republicans, cutting out 49 Senators and an equal percentage of the American people from his considerations.

Edwards’ parry on that riposte was also one of his strongest moments, reminding the audience that Cheney is not just a steady, veteran hand, but also an inveterate right-wing hack: having voted against Head Start, Meals on Wheels and the MLK holiday (and just who is supposed to be outside the mainstream?).

Edwards was certainly forceful and effective in knocking down Cheney’s long-standing innuendo linking Saddam to 9/11 and al Qaeda. Showing his most cold-blooded side, Cheney sat there and downright denied that he was guilty of such obfuscation.

But Edwards’ attack was blunted by the Democrats own little quagmire… also known as Iraq. If Edwards is right in arguing that the war on Saddam is a distraction from the real war on terror then why did he – and John Kerry—vote authorization for the Iraq invasion?

And if the Kerry-Edwards (and now L. Paul Bremer) assertion that Bush didn’t deploy enough troops to Iraq is similarly correct, does that mean a Kerry administration should escalate?

These are, of course, the questions the Democrats will not and cannot answer this year.

I did make one (private) prediction about the way the debate would unfold. I told my wife’s one-person focus group that the media would, whatever happened, probably spin their debate verdict toward Cheney. The praise for Kerry last week was so uniform and so loud by the punditocracy that I thought it absolutely predictable that we would see a "course correction," an over-compensation toward Cheney to achieve the artificial "balance" of the sort the media is most comfortable with.

That’s exactly what happened. Grade inflation of Cheney’s marks was witnessed nearly across the board with lots of obsessing over how the VP’s gravitas outweighed Edwards’ inexperience.

I readily declare that issue to be the most bogus of this entire campaign. More inexperienced than George W. Bush when he ascended to the presidency? Weigh the Edwards of 2004 against the Dubya of four years ago (or of last week for that matter) and tell me which way the scales tip?

So here we go into the last four weeks with the polls essentially tied and I suspect the two events likely to decide the race are not the remaining presidential debates. More important is how the real-life war in Iraq will continue to bleed across the headlines. And whether the reports we’ve seen in the last few days of an unanticipated and until now un-metered surge in voter registration adds up to a "likely voter" pool much deeper than polled.

What will tip this election is not what is being televised, but what still remains unseen.