By title, vice presidents are always second rank. But tonight’s vice presidential debate between southern slickster John Edwards and stalwart incumbent Dick Cheney will take center stage in the political world.
Though it may only be important for 90 minutes, a fleeting second in politics, both Edwards and Cheney have their work cut out for them.
On the heels of a stellar performance by running mate John Kerry during the presidential debate last Thursday, Edwards needs to implement his sweet-talking, legally trained rhetoric and match it with his winning smile. But this is the first one-on-one debate of his political career, and his lack of experience could be his eventual downfall.
Conversely, Cheney has been doing this stuff for four long years. In order to boost morale in the Bush camp, Cheney must continue to appear resolute and firm without blowing his pipes at wisecracks Edwards may send his way. He also needs to tone down his argument when it comes to international affairs. His now notorious claim linking John Kerry to inevitable terrorist attacks went something like this: “It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is we’ll be hit again in a way that will be devastating.”
If he pulls a similar stunt on national television, the sound byte will likely throw Cheney into the political version of ostracism. That means instead of being shunned by the political world, Cheney’s comment will be replayed incessantly on cable news channels and analyzed letter by letter.
That is the last thing the Bush campaign needs, especially after a recent surge in the polls by Kerry after last Thursday’s debate. According to a new Newsweek poll, Bush’s lead has been cut from six percentage points (49-43 percent) to two percentage points, (47-45 percent) and Kerry’s favorability rating has shot through the roof.
A consensus has formed that Kerry won the debate, and according to another Newsweek poll, Kerry was said to be the winner by 61 percent of viewers.
The truth of the matter is that Thursday’s debate shook up the campaign and made it a race again. Though vice presidential races usually mean next to nothing, Edwards can help to boost Kerry’s upward trend.
The debate is set in Cleveland, Ohio, a crucial battleground state. According to the Associated Press, the most recent poll in Ohio has Bush leading by only two percentage points (50-48 percent) and he won the state in 2000 by a minimal 3.6 percent. The same article mentions that 28.5 million people viewed the vice presidential debate during the last election. This year, that number of viewers, especially those who are undecided, could mean victory or defeat on either side.
Many contend that even presidential debates mean little to nothing in the context of a campaign, while vice presidential contests don’t even register on the radar screen. But with 63 million Americans tuning in to watch the debate in Miami, it wouldn’t take a stretch of the imagination to assert that a healthy portion of those viewers will turn their eyes North to Cleveland.
John Edwards and Dick Cheney will be shouldering the weight of their respective campaigns for 90 minutes tonight. The debate might turn out to be a non-event if both candidates stay on message, but one gaffe has the possibility to redirect of the course of this campaign. Though vice presidents normally remain shadowed by their running mates, tonight’s debate will be evidence that the number-two man could have a significant impact on this election.