CLEVELAND – The hard-hitting debate between Vice President Dick Cheney (search) and Democratic rival John Edwards (search) set the stage for what is likely to be more of the same in Friday's second televised presidential showdown between their bosses.
Cheney and Edwards slugged it out over Iraq, jobs and each other's judgment in their one and only debate before heading for the battleground state of Florida and its 27 electoral votes. Cheney was appearing Wednesday in Tallahassee, Edwards in West Palm Beach.
The Bush camp claimed that a strong performance by Cheney in Tuesday's night's debate in Cleveland helped break momentum that appeared to be going Kerry's way after the first presidential debate, while Democrats said Edwards more than held his own.
Both candidates got some encouragement from post-debate polls. Cheney fared best in an ABC News poll of a Republican-leaning group of registered voters who watched the debate, with 43 percent giving Cheney the edge, while 35 percent said Edwards won.
The Democrat was viewed more positively in a poll of 178 undecided voters by CBS News that found more of this crucial group thought he had won, 41 percent, than thought Cheney had won, 28 percent.
The two candidates, seated at a table just a few feet from each other at Case Western Reserve University, tore into each other repeatedly.
Edwards accused the administration of "not being straight with the American people" about conditions in Iraq and of presiding over the biggest job losses since the Depression.
"Your facts are just wrong," Cheney counterpunched. And at one point, he told Edwards, "Senator, frankly, you have a record in the Senate that's not very distinguished."
Edwards, referring to Cheney's long record of public service, asserted: "One thing that's very clear is that a long resume does not equal good judgment. I mean, we've seen over and over and over the misjudgments made by this administration."
The Democrat also said that as a member of Congress representing Wyoming more than a decade ago, Cheney voted against Head Start and banning plastic guns that can escape detection in metal detectors.
Edwards quickly put Cheney on the defensive by suggesting the administration had botched Iraq and is still misleading the nation about the situation there.
"The American people don't need us to explain this to them. They see it on their television every single day," Edwards said.
The vice presidential debate helped set the stage for Friday's second debate between Bush and Kerry, a town-hall style meeting at Washington University in St. Louis.
As to what Bush has to do Friday night, Bush adviser Mary Matalin said the debates are "separate and equal events," but that Cheney had built on what Bush said on foreign policy in the first debate and that "the president in his Friday debate will build upon what the vice president said tonight on the economy."
She said Cheney's performance will make it easier for Bush. "We got the job done tonight," she said.
But Kerry strategist Tad Devine said the vice presidential debate makes the job harder for Bush, not easier. "Cheney needed to stop our momentum, and he didn't. Now Bush has got to stop the momentum."
The debate between Cheney, an experienced debator, and Edwards, a freshman senator from North Carolina who made millions of dollars as a successful trial lawyer, encouraged give-and-take — and both gave and took.
"You're not credible on Iraq because of the enormous inconsistencies that John Kerry and you have cited time after time after time during the course of the campaign. Whatever the political pressures of the moment requires, that's where you're at," Cheney said at one point.
Edwards responded: "What the vice president has just said is just a complete distortion. The American people saw John Kerry on Thursday night. They don't need the vice president or the president to tell them what they saw."
On domestic issues, Edwards said more Americans are in poverty and living without health insurance than when the president took office in 2001.
But Cheney said that since the summer of 2003, jobs have been created again, and that a Kerry-Edwards administration would seek to raise taxes.
Cheney, whose daughter Mary is a lesbian, spoke supportively about gay relationships and said that "people ought to be free to choose any arrangement they want." As to Bush's support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, "He sets policy for this administration, and I support him," Cheney said.
Edwards said it was obvious that the Cheneys loved their daughter and that "you can't have anything but respect" for them. "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman and so does John Kerry," Edwards said. But, he added, "We should not use the Constitution to divide this country."