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THE VICE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE | DERRICK Z. JACKSON

A downward spiral

LOS ANGELES
GIVEN NO chance to play grandpa, Dick Cheney was the grump. Hunkered down and grimmacing through his answers, the vice president must have lived up to Republican strategists' greatest fears.

He was unable for vast parts of last night's debate to look directly at moderator Gwen Ifill, let alone look America straight in the eye. On a night the Republicans needed Cheney to deliver gravitas, he often appeared as if weighted by lead. He sunk into a tie with John Edwards.

Republicans desperate to forget President Bush's surliness in his first debate with John Kerry undoubtedly cackle this morning that Cheney's seriousness was a virtue against an animated but far less experienced John Edwards. To be sure, Cheney awoke long enough to get in some solid stingers on Edwards.

Cheney also said if the Kerry-Edwards ticket could not stand up to Howard Dean in adopting Dean's antiwar stance, who could they stand up to?

Cheney said that Edwards was so absent from the Senate that the first time he met him was in last night's debate. That last comment was pretty close to a Lloyd Bentsen, you're-no-John-Kennedy moment.

But Bentsen's memorable line did not win the presidency for Michael Dukakis, and Cheney's line will not win for Bush. A tie was not what the Republicans needed. Edwards set the tone for the night by saying directly to Cheney, "You are still not being straight with the American people."

Edwards further set the agenda by saying: "And it's not just me that sees the mess in Iraq. There are Republican leaders, like John McCain, like Richard Lugar, like Chuck Hagel, who have said Iraq is a mess and it's getting worse. And when they were asked why, Richard Lugar said because of the incompetence of the administration."

That sent Cheney's head into a downward spiral, having to explain all night an invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, his links to the war profiteer Halliburton and why America has lost so many jobs in the Bush administration.

The only time Cheney came out of the spiral was when Edwards gave him the chance, complimenting Cheney's support of his gay daughter.

Then Edwards sent Cheney back into his shell, rattling off Cheney's congressional votes against Head Start, banning plastic weapons, Meals on Wheels for seniors, the Martin Luther King holiday, and a resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela.

Edwards hurt himself and prevented himself from winning outright by being too programmed and by reciting Kerry's lines, to the point of saying Kerry's name twice on a question that he was not supposed to mention Kerry's name. But it was far more memorable to see how Cheney, arguably one of the most secretive vice presidents in the nation's history, was literally and physically crumpled.

Having spent 3 3/4 years constructing his shell, he is now incapable of breaking out of it, even on a night when it was crucial to do so. He may have stopped the slide in the polls after Bush's first debate, but his tie with Edwards means the presidential race remains a tie until Bush and Kerry meet again.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com.

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