WASHINGTON -- By the time the final finger had been pointed, the final statistic disputed, and the final attack levied on a candidate's competence, truthfulness, or record of service, the 2004 presidential campaign had descended to a new level of acrimony with last night's vice presidential debate.
Vice President Dick Cheney forcefully questioned the Democratic ticket's fitness for office, declaring "There's no indication at all that John Kerry has the conviction to successfully carry through the war on terror."
Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, previously known for his refusal to engage in negative campaigning, proved his seriousness by matching Cheney attack for attack. He began his night by declaring, "Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people."
In strategic terms, Cheney seemed to succeed in turning the spotlight back on the Democrats, and Edwards seemed to answer doubts about his experience by holding his own beside the vice president. But last night may well be remembered as the debate that gave voice to some of the resentments that were largely absent from last week's face-off between the presidential candidates.
When Senator John F. Kerry and President Bush praised each other's families during the second half of last Thursday night's encounter, they seemed to signal a camaraderie that transcended the deadly serious issues they'd discussed. It was a welcome moment of relief for voters in an election that both sides have portrayed as the most important in generations.
There was no camaraderie evident between Edwards and Cheney.
Edwards praised Cheney's family, but only in the course of attacking the Bush administration's support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Cheney suggested he and Edwards shared a common, working-class background but quickly went on to tout his own superior determination to fight terrorism.
The candidates entered the debate with vastly different missions. Cheney, who easily projects authority, needed to revive doubts about the toughness of the Democratic ticket, turning the spotlight back on Kerry and Edwards. Edwards, an empathetic Southerner, needed to make voters question the decisions made in the Oval Office while Bush and Cheney presided. Each ticket has risen in the polls when the focus has been on the other.
With greater ease than Bush displayed last Thursday, Cheney laid out his case for why Kerry's and Edwards' support for the Iraq war resolution in 2002, then their opposition to last year's vote on $87 billion in military and reconstruction funds, added up to an inconsistent message.
Edwards's response -- that he and Kerry were objecting to money being earmarked for Cheney's former company, Halliburton -- seemed a bit of a dodge: Kerry has stressed in the past that he was protesting the administration's unwillingness to cover the costs of Iraq by rolling back some tax cuts for the wealthy.
But Edwards was ready with a sharp accusation of his own, that Bush and Cheney had not been leveling with the people on Iraq. Like the trial lawyer he once was, Edwards kept returning to his core point: that Cheney has misled the public by suggesting a tie between the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Cheney responded by repeating his contention that Iraq had an "established relationship with Al Qaeda," but his very certitude may have raised more questions in voters' minds. As Edwards pointed out, Cheney's onetime mentor, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, had said the opposite earlier in the week.
For his part, Edwards came into the debate with two missions -- to affirm his own fitness to be "a heartbeat away," as moderator Gwen Ifill put it -- and to shift the focus of the campaign toward domestic issues.
In the first, he seemed to succeed, ceding little ground to the vastly more experienced vice president. On the second, he seemed to have failed, as echoes of the debate's deeply contentious first half on foreign affairs lingered through the second half on domestic issues like a foul haze.
In the meantime, both candidates did service to their masters by underscoring the key talking points of last week's debate. For Kerry and Edwards, the point to drive home was that the Bush administration's mistakes were responsible for the US sustaining 90 percent of the coalition casualties and 90 percent of the cost of the Iraq war. For the Bush-Cheney team, it was that Kerry's and Edwards' criticisms of the war were disrespectful of the sacrifices of American troops and their allies, including newly trained Iraqi forces.
But the second time around, both contentions seemed far more forced and simplistic, and sparked ferocious rebuttals.
Neither candidate committed an obvious gaffe. Edwards, at times, failed to answer the questions as directed to him. Cheney didn't do his ticket much good with black women by admitting he was unaware that they suffered from AIDS in vastly greater numbers than their counterparts of other races.
Each candidate landed a scripted attack line. Cheney crisply skewered Edwards on his attendance in the Senate by declaring that even though he presided over the chamber every week, "the first time I ever met you was when you walked on this stage tonight."
Edwards later riposted that Cheney's record proved that "a long resume does not equal good judgment."
Late in the debate, Edwards said, "I hope we get more of a chance to talk about health care."
Perhaps he will. But last night seemed to underscore that divisions over Iraq are serious, bitter, and almost certain to dominate the presidential campaign in the four weeks to Election Day.