DULUTH, Minn. — A funny thing is happening on the way to election day: The stiff Dr. Doom has loosened up, and Mr. Sunshine is channeling his inner attack dog.
To be sure, no one would ever mistake Vice President Dick Cheney for Sen. John Edwards, the man who wants his job. But at the end of a campaign that has grown increasingly bitter, Edwards and Cheney are finding strategic and stylistic middle ground.
On the strategic front, the two are focusing on the same seven electoral battlegrounds. Although they have not set foot in the same city at the same time, more often than not of late they're at least in the same state on the same day.
As for style, even the dour Cheney has adopted a bit of humor, serving up pithy but barbed Western sayings to describe Sen. John F. Kerry's efforts to look tough on national security. "You can put all the lipstick you want on that pig, but at the end of the day, it's still a pig."
For his part, the ever-smiling Edwards has turned up the rhetorical heat, focusing on the 377 tons of high-grade explosives in Iraq that Democrats say were lost on President Bush's watch.
"And what did George Bush say about this?" the North Carolina senator asked at several events. "He said that John Kerry won't support the troops. What in the world is he talking about? Aren't you sick and tired of George Bush and Dick Cheney using our troops as a shield to protect their own jobs instead of protecting our troops?"
Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University and the author of several scholarly texts on the vice presidency, argues that "both VP candidates have played the hatchet man to a T."
But the men are more often a study in contrasts. Although the Kerry campaign has used Edwards to reach out to a wide range of voters, Cheney is generally rolled out to energize Bush's conservative base.
The Edwards children are showcased for their cuddliness. Think John, 4, and Emma Claire, 6, cavorting on the campaign plane in their Halloween costumes, or Catharine, 22, describing Edwards at the University of Minnesota at Duluth: "To me, he's just Dad ... who I turn to for advice and who completely embarrasses me every time he tries to dance."
But vice presidential daughter Mary Cheney largely stays off-camera; the campaign says the back seat is her preference. When she is mentioned at all, it is generally by the Democrats, who like to note at least obliquely that she is a lesbian in a party that isn't open-minded about homosexuality.
Edwards campaigns with members of People magazine's A and B lists as he reaches out to women and young people. Thursday in Iowa, it was Hollywood heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio; pop star Jon Bon Jovi serenaded rallies for two days.
Edwards rarely campaigns with his wife, Elizabeth, who holds her own on the trail. Cheney tends to be a lone horseman -- no athletes, no entertainers, no policy wonks at his side. The main exception of late is his wife, Lynne. Also a skilled solo stumper, she's been appearing with her husband on an eleventh-hour mission to humanize him.
Edwards is a study in energy, the vice president in ennui. "Cheney in the attack mode is pretty grim. You don't know whether you are attending a funeral or a rally," Light said. "Edwards has a positive, forward spin in his argument.... He's done a nice job wielding the ax."
Both men see part of their jobs as raising grave questions about the opposing presidential candidate's truthfulness, artfully stopping just short of that uncivil word starting with "L."
Striding into a Cocoa, Fla., rally Wednesday night to the strains of John Mellencamp's "Your Life Is Now" (which contains the verse "Would you teach your children to tell the truth?"), Edwards cast the presidential debates as a litmus test for the candidates' candor.
"There was one man on the stage in those presidential debates telling the truth about the struggles of the middle class, about the economy, about all of the millions of jobs lost, right?" he began, in a call-and-response riff that harkened back to his Southern church roots.
On Monday, in Moorhead, Minn., a river apart from the better-known Fargo, N.D., Cheney, too, engaged in an audience exchange that let him plant the idea that it is Kerry who plays fast and loose with the facts. Cheney described Kerry's account of a 2002 meeting the senator said he had "with the members of" the United Nations Security Council. The topic was Saddam Hussein. Cheney first questioned whether the meeting took place. Finally, he said, "it didn't happen."
With that, a man in the audience called out: "He's a liar."
The vice president chuckled. "Now the press is going to attribute that to me," he quipped. "It was that guy back there from North Dakota."
But he liked the line well enough to use it moments later. A questioner said Kerry had used scare tactics weeks before, when he asserted that current demands on the military might lead to a return of the draft if Bush wins a second term.
"This question on the draft," Cheney began, before remembering his previous crack. Chuckling, he said, "Where is that guy from North Dakota?"