WASHINGTON — Meeting for their only televised debate Tuesday night, the two vice presidential candidates spent much of the time accusing each other of playing fast and loose with the facts.
They both had grounds to complain.
Throughout the 90-minute debate, Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards each frequently overstated his case, stretched the truth or ignored facts that did not suit his argument.
As in last week's debate between President Bush and challenger John F. Kerry, the most heated disputes between Cheney and Edwards came over who was telling the truth about the war in Iraq -- especially the Bush administration's claims that the invasion was justified because Baghdad possessed banned weapons and had ties to Al Qaeda.
Cheney, who was one of the administration's most ardent advocates of invading Iraq, reasserted his conviction that Iraq "had an established relationship with Al Qaeda." However, that suggests a deeper connection than many in the U.S. intelligence community believe existed.
In its final report, the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks cited evidence of contacts between Saddam Hussein's government and Al Qaeda dating back more than a decade, but concluded that there was "no evidence" of a "collaborative operational relationship."
One of Cheney's boldest assertions during the debate was to insist, "I have not suggested there was a connection between Iraq and 9/11."
It is true that Cheney has never flatly asserted that Iraq was complicit in the Sept. 11 plot, but on many occasions, he has made remarks leaving the impression that Iraq may have been aware or involved.
In an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" in September 2003, Cheney described Iraq as the "geographic base" for those behind the Sept. 11 attacks. "If we're successful in Iraq," he said, "then we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11."
Edwards had his own moments of truth-shading.
In arguing that senior Republicans agreed with Kerry that "Iraq is a mess and getting worse," he quoted Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) out of context when he said Lugar believed the situation was a result of administration "incompetence."
Lugar, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, recently said incompetence was to blame not for the turmoil in Iraq, but for the fact that only $1 billion had been spent of the $18.4 billion that Congress provided for Iraq's reconstruction.
Edwards reiterated the claim Kerry made in Thursday's debate that the United States had "taken 90% of the coalition causalities" in the war in Iraq. Cheney called that assertion "dead wrong" and said the figure was "closer to 50%" when Iraqis are included.
As of Tuesday, 1,061 American service members had been killed and 7,700 wounded. Edwards' figure appeared correct when Iraqi forces were omitted, analysts said. Non-U.S. coalition forces have identified 136 deaths to date, which would make American casualties account for 88.5% of the total.
But there are no reliable figures on Iraqi deaths. As a result, Cheney's assertion is nearly impossible to verify.
Cheney's claim Tuesday that U.S. forces have "captured or killed thousands of Al Qaeda" members also is questionable. Thousands of suspects have been captured or killed in dozens of nations in the administration's war on terrorism, according to congressional testimony by former CIA Director George J. Tenet. But that figure apparently includes Taliban and other fighters who were not widely believed to belong to Osama bin Laden's network.
Edwards, by repeating Kerry's assertion that the war in Iraq had cost $200 billion, also stretched the bottom line. Edwards counted money to be spent in the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. The cost of the war to date has been slightly more than $120 billion, according to budget officials cited by Factcheck.org, a nonpartisan website sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania.
The two men offered radically different portraits of Afghanistan. In Cheney's, Afghanistan is making a recovery after years of war and privation. He pointed to upcoming elections and new rights gained by some of the country's women. According to Edwards, the country remains immersed in tragedy, with violence raging in many areas and drug production rising.
By many objective measures, the violence in Afghanistan has remained a problem or gotten worse in the last year. And in claiming that 10 million voters were registered for Saturday's presidential election, Cheney was repeating an assertion that had been widely challenged as inflated by Afghans who had registered to vote more than once.
Both Cheney and Edwards shaded the truth when the debate repeatedly turned to Halliburton Co., the Houston-based oil services firm that Cheney once headed, an issue that Democrats have tried to make central to the campaign.