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Cheney and Edwards Prepare For Vice Presidential Debate

Aired October 5, 2004 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening to all of you. Thanks so much for joining us.
We are here at the Veale Center at Case Western Reserve University, the setting for the first and only vice presidential debate. Behind me, the stage where just an hour from now, John Edwards and Dick Cheney will take their places, Cheney on the left, Edwards on the right. Last week's Bush-Kerry debate turned the race for president into a dead heat. Tonight's debate could help tip the balance either way.

And here is another reason this debate has taken on such tremendous performance. In our latest poll, 80 percent of registered voters told us they are paying quite a lot attention to the upcoming election. Senator Edwards broke with traditional earlier and actually did some debate-day campaigning at a town hall event. And Vice President Cheney arrived in Cleveland a few hours ago, and he was kept out of sight, preparing to do his talking tonight.

And in just a few minutes, I'll be talking with the man who has been portraying John Edwards in the vice president's practice sessions, Ohio Congressman Rob Portman.

Now, as we all learned last week, these debates are not just a matter of substance. They are also a matter of style, reaction shots and we hope some memorable moments.

Joining me right now, senior White House correspondent John King and senior political correspondent Candy Crowley.

Good to see both of you.


ZAHN: So what are we going to see happen tonight? How many times are going to we see the vice president refer to John Edwards as a talented litigator and a man who of shifting positions?


ZAHN: You could script this, right?

KING: I think you'll hear the shifting positions quite a bit.

I think what will surprise some viewers, perhaps, is how much the vice president talks about John Kerry and John Edwards, that John Edwards is almost a secondary figure. His main focus will be on John Kerry. His job, as the vice presidential candidate's job is in any race is to go after the guy at the top of the ticket. And Republicans concede, they don't think the president made a very effective rebuttal to all the questions about his Iraq policy last week. That is the vice president's biggest challenge tonight.

This will be much more about John Kerry from Dick Cheney than it will be about John Edwards.

ZAHN: Which is what the Kerry folks have been telling me all day long. They see this as their opportunity, particularly on the heels of Secretary Rumsfeld's remarks yesterday that there's no hard evidence linking 9/11, al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, and then of course the man who helped set up a Coalition Provisional Government in Iraq now saying there weren't enough boots on the ground after the invasion, obvious line of attack. How will the vice president defend that?


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it will be interesting to see how the vice president -- I've been listening to John's reporting. And he says that it's possible that you will hear Dick Cheney at least concede that things change on the ground and you have to adapt. And perhaps that's why you need all this experience.

Look, the Kerry people are sort of -- it's kind of back at you. They want to talk about George Bush's administration. And in that, they love it that Dick Cheney is seen as this big, powerful vice president, because they can say, well, you were there, and you did this and why did you do this and why did you believe that? So they've been looking through this records. They've been looking through all of these things that they can say the real issue here is the Bush administration.

But I think there's an added -- an added errand, if you will, for John Edwards. And that it is to show his stuff out here.


ZAHN: Show his stuff, but also has to show his ticket has a consistent record on Iraq.

CROWLEY: Well, he does. And I think you'll hear much of what you heard from John Kerry, which is, I do have a consistent record. I've always said that you should have gone to our allies. That has been their -- you will hear nothing, no new substantive changes from either one of these men.

Their job is toe the No. 1 line from the top of the ticket. So I don't think you will hear anything new.

ZAHN: John.

KING: I think you could, though, hear a little bit of humility out of the vice president. There's a new CIA report out tonight that says there are no stockpiles, there were no stockpiles, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

ZAHN: So what does he have to do, concede that the intelligence was flawed? Just about in the government has said that so far, John.

KING: What many Republicans think would be a good thing to do is for the vice president to say, OK, we now know the intelligence was wrong, but when we made the decision, we thought it was right. Senator Edwards thought it was right. Senator Kerry thought it was right. The French thought it was right. Everyone in the United Nations Security Council thought it was right.

And in the post-9/11 world, thinking that, the president made the right decision.


ZAHN: But we have kind of heard this before, but not specifically from the vice president.

KING: Not from the president and the vice president. It would be a tone.

ZAHN: Halliburton, how often are we going to hear that brought up tonight by John Edwards?

CROWLEY: Well, I think that that's another one of those sticky wickets.

Yes, you have -- it's not so much Halliburton as it is to identify Dick Cheney as the guy who's on the side of the rich people. And insofar as Halliburton does that, that's what John Kerry wants to do. We're for rich people. They're for rich people. So when Halliburton fits into that, on the energy policy, if that comes up. Oh, well, if was written by your friends at Halliburton. You can see that.

But it has to be in a larger context. And the larger context is, they're for rich, powerful people. We're for you all.

ZAHN: Are the Cheney people worried about John Edwards's performance here tonight? Obviously, all they have to do is look at the numbers coming out of the debate, the presidential debate. And short of a huge mistake, there's not an expectation the numbers will change any great way, is there?

KING: Not in any great way. They're not worried about John Edwards. They think that he's a polished trial lawyer who had a pretty good run in his short career in the Senate debating on the Senate floor.

ZAHN: He's using the words, too, polished trial lawyer.


KING: I think his own people would concede he's a polished trial lawyer. He's a very good speaker. He makes a very effective argument.

The vice president's job, of course, is to rebut that argument with substance, not necessarily with style. And they're hoping that, as he recalls 9/11 and he recalls his role in the Bush administration, that the American people will think, John Edwards has been in the Senate for fewer than six years. Dick Cheney has been around for 40 years.

Most people don't vote on the vice president. But if 10 or 20 or 30 or 1,000 do somewhere in this close of a race, maybe the experience gap helps a little bit.


ZAHN: And what I found so interesting what John Edwards did today was just going out jogging and


ZAHN: This vigorous image.

CROWLEY: When you say, well, what was this about? Well, let's just say that we don't think two events today is too taxing for our candidate.

Now, they're not going to say Dick Cheney is old and this guy's young. This is a group that went around in the primaries saying, he is 50. He is old. He has matured. Now, it's all about, he's young and he's active. But, look, this, again, is about an image. And that is, the other thing they want to say is, this administration is more of the same.

You heard John Kerry doing that. So that's like the old face. We're about change. That's the new face. And that's what all of this running and town hall meeting and that kind of stuff is about.

ZAHN: All right, you two are on the clock now, 10 seconds apiece. How important will the close-ups be this evening, the cutaways, the reaction shots?

KING: The vice president is very well trained at keeping his cool. When you interview Congressman Portman, ask if he tried to get under his skin. The vice president knows how to keep a straight face.

CROWLEY: Well, and the good news is, Dick Cheney never changes his facial expressions. So if you're a trial lawyer, you need to be inscrutable while the jury is sitting there.

ZAHN: Sure.

CROWLEY: These guys how to keep that face with absolutely no expression.

ZAHN: Two well-trained fighters out there.

KING: They are. ZAHN: John King, Candy Crowley. You two as well.

Tonight's debate setting, a desk, swivel chairs and an audience of average Americans, seems informal, but the preparations are anything but. Shaping up the heavyweights for tonight's main event, meet the sparring partner for one candidate and a close adviser to the other next.

And while you're watching tonight, click on to our Web site for a real-time blog of the debate, facts and history and much more at


ZAHN: ... Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where the vice presidential candidates are just about 50 minutes from the start of their only debate.

Let's get a taste of what is to come. Joining me now, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, co-chair of the Democratic National Committee, and Republican Congressman Rob Portman of Ohio. He played the part of John Edwards in Vice President Cheney's warmups tonight's debate.

Great to see both of you in person for a change.


ZAHN: All right, so you play John Edwards, or have for the better part of the last couple of weeks. You've looked at all of these videos of him as a senator. You've read his book. You attacked Dick Cheney with about any charge you could think of related to Halliburton, flawed intelligence in Iraq. Did he crack?

REP. ROB PORTMAN (R), OHIO: Not at all. Not at all.

Dick Durbin said, are you going to play Edwards tonight or Portman? So I'm playing Portman, just to make that clear. No, Dick Cheney's seen it all and he's heard it all. He's unflappable. And he's a policy guy, too. You're going to hear a lot of substance tonight from Dick Cheney. You heard it back in 2000 and you'll hear it again. He's going to focus on the records that are different and he's going to focus on the different visions for the future.

ZAHN: Will we hear anything new from John Edwards tonight in terms of a line of attack on the vice president and the Bush administration?

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: I'm not privy to all of that.

But I can tell you, we feel momentum coming off the Kerry- President Bush debate just the other night, and we hope it continues tonight. We don't underestimate Vice President Cheney. He's been through this before. John Edwards has not. And he's certainly been around government at the highest levels for a long time. But I really have a lot of faith that John Edwards is going to draw out the important issues and questions. And that's all we can ask.

ZAHN: Where's the opportunity for him tonight? Is it on the issue of Iraq or do you think you got so much traction coming out of the presidential debate?

DURBIN: I think it's both. The vice presidents debate only once. It's going to, I'm sure, include both foreign policy, as well as domestic issues.

There are still some unresolved issues. And Vice President Cheney's statements to the American people over and over again are fair game tonight.

ZAHN: And it seems that you have some ammunitions from your own party now, when you have the defense secretary talking about no hard evidence linking 9/11, al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, and Paul Bremer coming out and saying there were not enough troops on the ground after the invasion. How will the vice president defend the actions of the administration?

PORTMAN: Well, I hope those issues are raised, because actually what Bremer has said today and what Rumsfeld has said today fits right in to what Dick Cheney has been saying for a long time, which is, Iraq is central in the war on terror. Those are Paul Bremer's words today.


ZAHN: But they're also conceding perhaps misjudgments were made. Even the president has admitted miscalculations in the postwar plan.

PORTMAN: Well, and Dick Cheney can talk about some of that. And he can talk about it from his experience as secretary of defense, as well as vice president in a way that really has a lot of credibility, as opposed to John Edwards, who is going to say, we can do it better.

Well, what's the American people going -- what are they going to think about someone who says they can do it better when they don't have that experience and judgment? What Dick Cheney will say is, look, Iraq is central to the war on terror. That's what Rumsfeld is saying. That's what Bremer is saying. If the commanders in the field need more troops, they can have more troops. The president has said that from the start. And Bremer knows that. And he said that today.

So I think actually it will be an interesting platform if that comes up for the vice president to talk about what's happened, why we went to Iraq, and why it's so important that we stay there and win this victory.

ZAHN: And you know John Edwards has to expect to defend inconsistencies in the Edwards-Kerry campaign when it comes to the issue of Iraq. What do you think he has to do tonight to convince the American public that there is clarity there, that there is a plan?

DURBIN: I think what the American people are looking for is a candidate with the strength and conviction of his views who can lead this country. And I believe, when it's all over, they'll judge John Edwards capable of doing just that. And we also have to go to some of the specific things that Vice President Cheney has been saying and doing. If you look at the litany of statements misleading the American people about the situation in Iraq, the Vice President Cheney's name is always at the top. He is the one who consistently states things that just turn out to be wrong in terms of the link with al Qaeda, in terms of weapons of mass destruction, use of aluminum tubes. The list goes on and on.

Plus, I want to tell you, some of the things he said during the course of this campaign, that, if you elect John Kerry, it will be a field day for terrorists, that, I think, is over the line and he may be held accountable for that.

ZAHN: What about that, Representative Portman?


ZAHN: Do you think that is the case? Do you think if John Kerry is elected that it will make the United States more vulnerable to attack or allow al Qaeda to operate more freely? Do you think so?


PORTMAN: Well, what is wonderful about tonight...

ZAHN: You didn't answer my question.

PORTMAN: Well, I'll answer you by way of saying what Dick Cheney will do tonight is what I would do, which is to say that there are very different and competing positions as to how to protect our country.

And the position that Bush/Cheney ticket has taken is exactly the right one. You need to go on the offensive.

ZAHN: That what, it makes America safer than John Kerry would?

PORTMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

These are different policy positions. And I love Dick rolling out all of these various incidences. I can't wait to hear Dick Cheney talk about this. It was John Edwards who said, remember, that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat, based on the same intelligence had. Dick Cheney never said that. Nor did George Bush.

So they've used the same intelligence. Some of that intelligence clearly was wrong. We'll hear about that tonight. But it was based on the best intelligence at the time. And it was the right thing to do in terms of getting Saddam Hussein out of power. So I'm so glad that we're going to have the chance tonight to hear directly from Dick Cheney on these issues. They do have different positions on terrorism.

ZAHN: But don't you both concede tonight that the senator, that even the senators on the Armed Services Committee did not have access to the same intelligence as the administration?

DURBIN: Of course they didn't.


ZAHN: ... a lot of folks in the Democratic Party and the Republican as well.


DURBIN: I sit on the Intelligence Committee. And I can tell you, the people at the highest level of the Intelligence Committee get more than we do as members of the committee, the president and vice president even more information.

So to suggest that what John Edwards knew is what everybody knew in Congress and what the vice president knew is just to oversimplify this.


ZAHN: But your colleague is not backing down from what the vice president suggested, that is, if you elect John Kerry, somehow America is less safe.


PORTMAN: I don't question that John Kerry wants to protect this country. I don't for a moment.

And best intentions aside, you have to look at the policy. And what George Bush has said repeatedly and Dick Cheney believes that you need to go on the offensive and be very aggressive. And that includes not just defending America, which is very important, homeland security and so on, but going after the terrorist groups where they are and taking down these regimes like the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.


PORTMAN: John Kerry has said it's the wrong war at the wrong time.


ZAHN: ... going to be a direct line of attack on John Edwards. How's he going to survive that?

DURBIN: Well, I think he'll do fine, because I've seen him under fire. He's a person with poise and strength and character. He'll do just fine.

But when we took the offensive and America voted for the offensive, it was against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. That's where we went astray. The Bush administration has taken us into Iraq, into a situation with no end in sight. And America is not safer because of it. (CROSSTALK)

PORTMAN: I think we will hear about tonight why it's central to the war on terrorism, which is what Bremer said. And think of what al-Zarqawi has done even in the last week. It's very much a part of the war against terrorism.

ZAHN: We're going to be listening for all this, this evening. Thank you for joining us in person.

PORTMAN: Thanks, Paula. Great to be with you.

ZAHN: Appreciate it.

DURBIN: Thank you.

ZAHN: Good luck to both of your candidate .

We'll be covering it live in just about 45 minutes from now.

And as the minutes count down, the candidates are under tremendous pressure to perform well at their peak in tonight's debate. They'll do well to heed some hard lessons from the past -- debate dos and don'ts when we come back.


ZAHN: And we are counting down to tonight's vice presidential debate here at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Our own Judy Woodruff certainly knows something about these debates. She moderated one of them between Mr. Quayle and Mr. Bentsen, that face-off back in 1988, which I'm sure many of you remember. She joins me, along with CNN contributor and "TIME" columnist Joe Klein, here with his list of patented dos and don'ts for the candidates.

Good to see all of you.



ZAHN: So let's talk about the challenge of moderating this debate, because it seems to me Jim Lehrer in the last debate distinguished himself from previous debates by giving himself the liberty of the additional follow-up question when he thought there was punctuation. And that ended up providing the fire of the debate.


ZAHN: What does Gwen Ifill have to do tonight?

WOODRUFF: The same thing, in a sense, Paula.

It looks different because you have a table and you've got the three of them sitting around a table. They're seated. They're not standing. But the format is the same. It's two minutes, a minute and a half and then a minute option afterwards. It's the same thing. And it's up to the moderator to push. If you don't feel like you're getting the answers, push, push, push.

ZAHN: I want to go through your list now of what each of the candidates has to do to succeed, or what he shouldn't do if he doesn't want to fail.


KLEIN: I just happen to have that list right here. You want to start with Cheney?

ZAHN: Go for it, Joe.


For Vice President Cheney, play to your experience. This is a guy who has more commands of facts than almost anybody in Washington. Second, think about your grandchildren. It will make you a little bit more human in this debate. And, third, be strong, but don't be too strong. Don't get angry. Don't go after him too hard.

For Cheney, the don'ts, don't smile. It just doesn't work. It's not your personality.


KLEIN: Don't overstate your case. Cheney has at times overstated the case about the links between Iraq and al Qaeda, and Iraq's nuclear program. And, third of all, don't be dismissive. Don't say, look here, sunny, or anything like that.

ZAHN: Let's go back to the don't. Don't overstate your case, because we've heard a lot of noise here today that the vice president is going have to confront this charge that there is no hard evidence linking al Qaeda, 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, and now, even from within his own camp, criticisms that there were not enough boots on the ground once the invasion got under way.

WOODRUFF: But Dick Cheney, I think, has been very good, when he has to, when he's under pressure, at frankly keeping his cool and delivering the package.

I mean, he knows how to do the criticism, get to the other guy, but do it in a sort of avuncular, not so hostile way. And I think he can do that.

ZAHN: So what is an avuncular assault line tonight?


WOODRUFF: I don't know. Joe, what do you think?

KLEIN: Well, I think he's going to go after Edwards on lack of experience, but also he's going -- it's going to be mostly directed at Kerry. He's going to be debating Kerry from last week, as much as he's debating Edwards tonight.

ZAHN: And let's go through the Edwards list.


KLEIN: Well, and, actually, that's the first do for Edwards. Defend John Kerry when Cheney attacks him. Other presidential candidates have been really angry at their vice presidents in the past when they didn't do that.

ZAHN: But wait a minute. There's also been concern among Democrats that John Edwards has not been proactive enough even in the last couple of weeks playing that attack dog role.

KLEIN: That's why he has to defend John Kerry when the opportunity presents itself.

He has to show some knowledge of foreign policy, which he has. He was a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And he also has to remember who he is. He should be the trial lawyer, stand up for the little guy. He might mention that he's the son of a mill worker.

ZAHN: Oh, you think we might hear that two or three times tonight, Joe? We've heard that in the past a number of times on the stump.

KLEIN: We might hear that.

The don'ts is, don't be nervous. Remember, in his convention speech this summer, Edwards started off very nervous. His people admitted that afterwards. And this is a lot of pressure here for a first-time guy. Second of all, don't try to charm Cheney. It won't work, but that's the way Edwards has operated throughout his career as a lawyer. He's had to try to charm juries. And the third thing is, don't offer a plea bargain. Stay tough.

ZAHN: And we've gotten some insights tonight how each of these gentlemen is going to calibrate their performances. But short of a colossal error here tonight, when we look at the numbers three days from now, or leading into the presidential debate on Friday night, will this mean anything?

WOODRUFF: It could.

I mean, we all like to say it's about the top of the ticket and it is, but if one of these guys makes a terrible blunder, makes a statement that gets the man at the top in trouble, this is a debate we're going to remember. Or if one of them has a gotcha line, we'll remember it. I'm not saying it is going to determine the outcome of the election, but this debate, every debate, it seems to me this year has an added weight of its own because of the intense level of interest in this campaign.

ZAHN: So it could stop the momentum of John Kerry... KLEIN: That's the key word.

ZAHN: ... if there's a weak performance on John Edwards' part?


KLEIN: It's not even a weak performance.

The Democrats have momentum now. People are saying after last Thursday night, hey, these guys may not be so bad. If this is even a draw, you know, if people aren't saying, hey, Edwards isn't so bad either, then it stops Kerry and Edwards' momentum a little bit, I think.

WOODRUFF: Very quick. I ran into one of John Edwards's dearest friends here tonight, practiced law with him. And he said if Cheney comes after him, he said he's not going to pull a Lieberman. He's going to come right back. So we'll see.

ZAHN: Well, that's a painful lesson Joe Lieberman learned.

KLEIN: Well, actually, when they came out of that debate, Lieberman and Cheney four years ago, they both thought they had done great. And "The New York Times" said the next day, this is what politics should be.

But as we've learned this summer, politics is a lot rougher than that, and this is going to be a lot rougher debate than we saw four years ago.

WOODRUFF: And now we're a lot smarter. We can figure these things out the night of the debate.


ZAHN: Sure. But will, in the end, do you think, the tone of this perhaps be more civil, maybe a little less strident than we saw in the presidential debate?

KLEIN: Well, you know what is going to mitigate toward civility is, I was up there. That's a pretty small table. They're pretty close together, with Gwen Ifill right in the middle.

ZAHN: It's very cozy.

KLEIN: And it's really hard to be devastating when you're that close to the person you're debating.

WOODRUFF: But they may find a way.


ZAHN: Well, we'll be looking with the two of you.

WOODRUFF: They may find a way.

KLEIN: I think we can guarantee that.

ZAHN: Joe Klein, Judy Woodruff, thank you for your insights tonight.

You can find Joe Klein's dos and don'ts at our Web site at Log on during the debate and see which candidate is actually listening to Joe tonight. And while you're there, suggest a question you'd like the Bush or Kerry campaign to answer. It just might get asked during my upcoming town hall meetings. I will be visiting key battleground states starting this Thursday, October 7.

Join me at 8:00 Eastern for a town hall in Racine, Wisconsin. A week later, on October 14, we'll move on to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. October 21 finds us in Clark County, Ohio. And November 1, the night before the election, we'll be in Kissimmee, Florida.

But right now, the vice president and the man who wants his job are about 30 minutes away from squaring off. Stick around. There's a lot more ahead, as our special pre-debate coverage continues from Cleveland, Ohio.

We'll be right back.


ZAHN: And welcome back.

As you can see behind me, the debate hall is just about filled now as we move up on about 30 minutes before the start of this very important vice presidential debate. That wraps it up for all of us here.

Now it's time to turn the show over to my colleague Wolf Blitzer.


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