Tonight was the first and only vice-presidential debate between Vice-President Dick Cheney and Senator John Edwards, moderated by Gwen Iffel of PBS. The conventional wisdom is that Kerry had closed the gap with the president following the first debate and the Republicans were looking to Cheney to stop the Democrat's momentum. Some national polls tightened following the presidential debate, but others did not, and most state-by-state electoral college predictions still show a rather large Bush victory. Nevertheless, Cheney was relentless in his attacks on Edwards and Kerry, and his defense of the administration. Cheney clearly won the debate, but the significance and impact of a vice-presidential debate can be easily overestimated. What Cheney did tonight was change the story of the campaign over the next three days and for the Bush campaign, that's a very good thing.
Here's a quick overview of Cheney's most powerful soundbites.
"If they couldn't stand up to the pressures that Howard Dean represented, how can we expect them to stand up to Al-Qaeda?"
"These are two individuals who have been for the war when the headlines were good and against it when their poll ratings were bad."
"Frankly, Senator, you have a record that's not very distinguished." After making a persuasive case that Edwards has been an absentee senator, Cheney concluded with the best national debate line since Lloyd Bentsen summoned the ghost of Jack Kennedy, "The first time I ever met you is when you walked on the stage tonight."
Edwards spoke to supporters after the debate and attempted to counter this devasting attack with three things: I once sat next to the VP in a meeting for three hours, we were once at a swearing-in ceremony together, and my wife pointed this out to Cheney on stage at the debate.
This is terrible politics. First, it validates the attack. Second, it sounds petty and defensive (ie. "Did so!"). Third, Edwards never actually claimed to have met the VP, only to have been in the same room with him, which only makes Edward seem unremarkable. Fourth, do you really want to suggest the imagine of your wife standing up to Dick Cheney for you, with information that you yourself didn't recall?
The best hope for Edwards was a clever soundbite that blunted the criticism and made it irrelevant to voters (ie. "Tonight, New Hampshire made me the comeback kid"). The fact that he did not have a response on the stage assures that the line, and all the baggage that comes with it, is now part of the public's picture of John Edwards.