VP candidates preparing to show off debate mettle


The Washington Post

So much for the main event. Let’s get to the preliminary.

Two days after Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush laid out deep philosophical differences in the first of three nationally televised debates, their running mates take center stage tonight in their only debate of the campaign on the campus of Centre College in Danville, Ky.

The stakes in this debate and the expected television audience will be smaller than they were Tuesday night in Boston, if only because vice presidential candidates are, by their nature, of secondary importance.

But for both Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and his Republican opponent, former defense secretary Dick Cheney, tonight’sc debate will provide probably their best chance to influence the outcome of what remains an exceptionally close contest.

Wednesday, the two candidates began positioning themselves for their only face-to-face confrontation of the campaign. In Richmond, Ky., where he has been hard at work at "debate camp" since Sunday, Lieberman said he would use the debate to contrast Gore and Bush policy initiatives, especially their differences over how to use the budget surplus.

Stressing a theme that Gore invoked repeatedly during his debate with Bush, Lieberman said, "Our opponents would basically waste the surplus by spending it all on one big tax cut that goes overwhelmingly to the wealthy, will probably put the country back in debt — which we don’t want to do."

Meanwhile, Cheney held a fourth and final mock debate practice session, with Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, playing the role of Lieberman. At a news conference at Republican National Committee headquarters, Cheney said he viewed the debate as "a conversation with the American people."

Picking up a frequent Bush theme from Tuesday night, he said he hoped voters would understand that there are "fundamental underlying differences" between the two campaigns, with the Republicans advocating "a process of letting people make choices for themselves."

Since the two national political conventions, Lieberman has received generally high marks as Gore’s running mate. He is the first Jewish candidate of either major party to be nominated for vice president, a 30-year veteran of Connecticut politics with a folksy, joke-cracking public manner.

In contrast, Cheney has been criticized, even by some Republicans, for what they see as an overly serious, almost dour demeanor and ill-at-ease campaign style. He won six terms in the House from Wyoming, but he has not held elective office for 12 years and last debated a political opponent in 1988.

"Cheney has the tougher job," said Alan Schroeder, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and author of a book on the presidential debates. "On a very basic level, he kind of needs to introduce himself to the voters. I’m not sure people have quite figured out who he is. Lieberman comes into this with a lot of good will."

Republican strategists said they expected the vice presidential debate to be substantive and serious. But the GOP operatives also made clear that Cheney will seek to highlight what he and his advisers see as inconsistencies between some of the positions Lieberman now espouses as Gore’s running mate and stands he has taken on the same issues in the past.

"Joe Lieberman is changing before our eyes," said Ari Fleischer, a Bush campaign spokesman. "The question is how far he will go now that he has to parrot Al Gore’s positions."

Portman, who described Cheney as "cool under fire," said his goal in the debate will be "to simply stick to the approach he has taken as a straight talker with incredible experience and knowledge. The more people see him, the more they like him."

Democrats said they believe Cheney is likely to criticize Lieberman for muting his stands against violence and sex in the entertainment industry and his past criticism of affirmative action policy.

Lieberman said Wednesday that he is "going to do all I can to try to make sure it (the debate) is not all negative, back and forth, personal attack stuff." But if the confrontation does turn rough, a key aide noted that Lieberman has a history as a tough debater who does not hold back his punches. "Lieberman is not a wimp," the aide said.

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