WASHINGTON – Usually just a campaign sideshow, this year's vice presidential debate has taken on new life as a high-stakes showdown in a tightening presidential race. Dick Cheney's (search) mission is to slow John Kerry's (search) sudden momentum, while John Edwards' (search) assignment is to feed doubts about President Bush's handling of Iraq and the economy.
Four weeks before the election, both sides see Tuesday night's face-off as an important milestone in a race in which neither side can afford a mistake.
"Everything that happens is important," said Bush-Cheney communications director Nicolle Devenish.
Anxious for a confidence boost, the White House is counting on Cheney to deliver a solid, steady performance to reassure Republicans shaken by Bush's scowling appearance in last week's leadoff debate with Kerry. The vice president is expected to paint Kerry and Edwards as lacking the resolve to lead the war against terror and keep Americans safe.
Democrats, meanwhile, are exuberant about Kerry's first debate and hope Edwards can keep the ball rolling by drawing on the same skills he used as a trial lawyer to win multimillion-dollar settlements from juries. Edwards is expected to portray Cheney as the architect of a misguided Iraq policy that was based on the erroneous belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Edwards also is expected to criticize Cheney, the former chief executive of Halliburton, as a symbol of corporate greed.
Cheney and Edwards are viewed favorably by about half of all voters, but Cheney has more negative ratings, a Pew Research Center (search) poll suggests. About four in 10 voters view Cheney unfavorably; three in 10 see Edwards that way.
Typically, vice presidential debates are tangential events with little impact or voter interest. After all, the race is not about No. 2 but the person at the top of the ticket. Even in the vice presidential debate, the real focus is Bush and Kerry, not Cheney and Edwards.
Speaking for Cheney, senior adviser Mary Matalin said, "He's going to make the arguments that Bush made. He's not breaking away from where the president is."
Four years ago, 46.5 million people watched the first presidential debate between Bush and Al Gore, but then the viewership plummeted to 28.5 million for the vice presidential encounter between Cheney and Sen. Joe Lieberman. This year, both sides contend viewers will tune in because of the high stakes.
"In a race that's going to be decided by a few points, you can't break it open," said Bush's chief political strategist, Matthew Dowd. "But moments like the vice presidential debate will matter a lot because ... this is somebody that could step into the office of the presidency at a moment's notice."
Just as important, Dowd said, the goal is to motivate partisans and seek the support of undecided and wavering voters. "A very small, small number of persuadables," he said.
While voters who watched the first presidential debate believed by 2-to-1 that Kerry did better, the confrontation did not produce a big shift in opinions of the candidates, according to a Pew poll released Monday. Bush holds a 48 percent to 41 percent lead over Kerry among all voters; when the sample is narrowed to likely voters, Bush holds a more modest 49 percent to 44 percent edge. Other polls show the race dead even or give Bush a slight lead.
Because of his extraordinary influence in Bush's administration, Cheney is an inviting target for the Democrats.
"Dick Cheney is a symbol of all the wrong choices this administration has made," said Bruce Reed, a Kerry supporter and former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration. Americans are paying more money for things like health care, gasoline and college, and the economy has lost a million jobs, Reed said. Cheney "is the ultimate insider. He's been helping administrations fail now for 30 years."
For his part, the vice president will argue that Kerry is a flip-flopping liberal who can't be entrusted with the nation's security. "Everybody knows that he's taken 10 or 11 or 12 different stands on Iraq and he shifts whichever way the wind blows," said Dowd.
Bush raised the stakes in that argument Monday by telling an Iowa audience that Kerry's policies "are dangerous for world peace. If they were implemented they would make this world not more peaceful, but more dangerous."
Kerry's camp looks at the violence and bloodshed in Iraq, with more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers killed, and asks what the administration's plan is to win the war.
"Can Dick Cheney honestly look the American people in the eye and say that he and President Bush and the rest of the administration would have done absolutely nothing differently?" asked Susan Rice, a foreign policy adviser to Kerry-Edwards.