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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Cheney, Edwards Don't Let Up on Attacks the Day After Debate

October 07, 2004|Michael Finnegan and James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writers

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A day after their contentious debate, Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards on Wednesday replayed their squabbling at long distance, each suggesting they got the better of the other.

With many analysts calling the debate a draw, the two running mates used a day of campaigning across Florida -- the biggest of the election battlegrounds -- to focus attention on the next major event: the Friday matchup between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry.

Edwards said the president and Cheney "struggle with the truth" and refuse to "level with the American people" about troubles in Iraq and economic hardship at home.

The North Carolina Democrat asked 1,000 supporters at a West Palm Beach rally if they had heard "any indication from this vice president that they're going to tell the American people the truth about the mess in Iraq?"

"No!" the crowd shouted.

"Not only that," Edwards said, the vice president "said he would still do everything the same." A tide of boos filled the convention hall.

Cheney, campaigning in the state capital of Tallahassee, echoed Bush's stinging new campaign speech by reiterating his assertions that the Democrats' tough talk on terrorism obscures their past performance in office.

"What we've seen during the course of this campaign, and especially during the debate the other night, is a lot of tough talk, and John Edwards is saying we're going to crush the terrorists,'' Cheney said. "The problem with that is there isn't anything in John Kerry's background of the last 30 years that gives you anything to believe he would be tough."

Both sides seized on misstatements large and small to try to mold voters' post-debate perceptions of which candidate prevailed Tuesday night. The snap polls conducted by television networks suggested a split decision, in contrast to the overwhelming consensus after the first presidential debate that Kerry had outperformed the president.

On Wednesday, the Democratic National Committee produced a 60-second video on its website that featured contradictory statements Cheney made, including his erroneous assertion that he and Edwards had never met before Tuesday night.

"Someone who lies about the little things will lie about the big things too," Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe told reporters.

The Bush campaign countered by releasing a "fact sheet" enumerating "at least 15 inaccurate statements" by Edwards on Tuesday night, including what Cheney said was an exaggeration of the budgetary cost of the Iraq war.

For all the tussling, analysts said the Edwards-Cheney debate had done nothing to change the momentum of the presidential campaign, of which Kerry has seen a big boost since his performance in the first presidential debate a week ago. If anything, observers suggested, the debate only heightened the stakes for the two presidential candidates when they meet Friday night in a town hall setting in St. Louis.

"What we are seeing out of the first two debates, more than in the past, is there is a sequencing," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. "The end of one debate is feeding off the end of another, and I think the resonance will just get louder and get stronger."

A day after the vice presidential encounter, Edwards served again as the public face of the Democratic ticket as Kerry took a break from campaigning to prepare in Colorado for the next debate.

In West Palm Beach, a main setting of the 2000 presidential vote recount, Edwards told union members and other supporters that they would again play a "huge role" in determining who wins the White House.

"You're at ground zero," he said. "Every vote does count, and this time every vote's going to be counted."

But his main focus was attacking the credibility of Bush and Cheney.

To start, Edwards ridiculed Cheney for telling him at the Cleveland debate that the first time they met was while shaking hands before the debate.

Edwards recalled introducing the vice president at a February 2001 Senate prayer breakfast.

"This struggle with the truth is not just about whether we met before," Edwards said. "They struggle on the most basic issues facing America today.

"It was clear with the first debate here in Florida. It was clear last night again in Cleveland. It'll be clear again this Friday night: They're not going to level with the American people," Edwards said. "Let me tell you something: Come November, the American people are going to level with them."

Cheney did not directly respond to Edwards, leaving it to his wife, Lynne, to make light of his misstatement about the first time the two rivals met.

"It's very good to go to a prayer breakfast," she said, introducing the vice president in Tallahassee. Then, referring to Edwards' spotty congressional attendance record, she added, "Don't you think the senator ought to go to the Senate once in a while?"

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