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Lieberman, Cheney Primed for Tonight's Showdown


RICHMOND, Ky. — One contender trained in a historic 19th century mansion on the outskirts of a Kentucky college town. The other was home in Washington, prepping in the familiar confines of Capitol Hill.

Wednesday was the last day for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to get ready before their showdown tonight at Centre College in Danville, Ky., a matchup dubbed "The Thrill in the 'Ville."

But despite the candidates' weeks of preparation--the hours studying policy briefings, the mock debates with aides--many historians say vice presidential matchups traditionally have little effect on elections--even in a campaign as tightly contested as this one.

Vice presidential debates "make absolutely no difference in the final outcome of the election," said Allan J. Lichtman, chairman of the history department at American University in Washington. "The American people vote the top of the ticket. They don't vote for the No. 2, and they certainly don't vote based on the debate performance of the running mates."

Even the most searing exchange between vice presidential candidates--when Lloyd Bentsen scolded Dan Quayle that he was "no Jack Kennedy" in 1988--failed to shift the race. Republicans Bush and Quayle trounced Democrats Michael S. Dukakis and Bentsen.

Although vice presidential debates may not determine an election, experts say, they can serve a useful purpose--helping distinguish the two tickets and making voters more familiar with issues.

The debates are certainly big news for at least one select group: the candidates.

"I've done debates in the past, but I'd say this is the main event," Lieberman told a group of local firefighters Wednesday over a tuna sandwich lunch at a Richmond diner.

Part of his mission, and Cheney's, is to flesh out his public image: The jocular Lieberman will try to project a serious tone, while Cheney, who is often awkward campaigning, will attempt to show his ease at being on stage.

Neither one comes to the debate as a novice. In his Senate races in Connecticut, Lieberman effectively shut down opponents with a humorous but stern tone. Cheney regularly addressed the press during the Persian Gulf War and is experienced in answering hardball questions on political talk shows.

True to his nature, Cheney kept his pre-debate plans low-key, preferring to sleep in his own homes in Wyoming and Washington as he readied for his matchup with his Democratic opponent.

With the jagged peaks of the Teton Mountains rising up as a backdrop, the Republican vice presidential candidate hunkered down in Jackson Hole over the weekend. On Saturday, he sat on a stage framed by long red velvet drapes and held a mock debate in an old playhouse in downtown Jackson Hole. Among those taking a turn as the moderator was his son-in-law, Phil Perry--who, aides noted, was tougher on Cheney than they would have been.

When the candidates weren't studying this week, they competed for the most colorful ways to cast the event.

While Lieberman dabbled in boxing metaphors, joking that he has been playing the theme to "Rocky" in the mornings, Cheney's wife, Lynne, preferred another image, calling her husband and Texas Gov. George W. Bush "sheriffs riding out of the West."

"They're going to kick the bad guys out of town," she said.

On Wednesday afternoon, Cheney told reporters he plans to be "pleasant and professional" during the debate. While aides have said he is "wary" of the tactics Lieberman might use, Cheney said he wasn't concerned. "They can do whatever they want to do," he said.

Lieberman did his last-minute cramming at a "debate camp" organized by his staff at a compound owned by Eastern Kentucky University.

(Until now, one of Richmond's biggest claims to fame was that it is home to the current Mrs. America. Eastern is also ranked as one of the nation's top party schools by Playboy magazine.)

Every day, Lieberman held mock debates with his advisors in the Arlington House, a Georgian mansion surrounded by a rolling golf course. Down the hill, the national press corps, hungry for tidbits of news, waited in a converted mule barn.

Debate camp wasn't glamorous. Lieberman and his staff stayed in a motel off the interstate, right across the street from a discount tobacco shop and a funeral home.

But it wasn't all work. On Tuesday, Lieberman toured the Eastern campus, stopping at the bronze statue of Kentucky explorer Daniel Boone. Students explained that they rub the statue's left foot for luck before their exams.

"I hope I'll get an A on my test Thursday night," he said with a laugh, giving the foot a good rub.

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