Tim Russert is NBC News' Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press.  Each week he offers MSNBC.com's readers his insight and analysis into questions about politics past, present and future.  This week's offering looks at the vice presidential debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator John Edwards.

MSNBC: Tim, how’d Vice President Cheney and Senator Edwards do?

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Tim Russert:  Both men played very much to their political base.
John Edwards came out of the gate and said, “You're not being straight about Iraq.” He wanted this debate to be about Iraq.
How did Dick Cheney counter? “If you want to win the war on terror, you need George Bush.”

Then we had an interesting exchange, John Edwards saying, “Just because you want experience, Mr. Vice President, doesn't mean you have good judgment.”

Cheney countered by saying, in effect, “You're a young man in too much of a hurry.  I preside over the Senate, and I never met you until tonight.”

MSNBC:  In retrospect, how important was this debate?

Video: Biden, Graham react

Russert:  I thought Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, had a very interesting point. He said last Thursday was not George Bush's best night. Republicans were very much afraid that if this debate went the same way as last Thursday's, there would be extraordinary momentum for the Kerry-Edwards ticket going into Friday.

They do believe that Tuesday night they blunted some of the momentum, because Dick Cheney was able to rally the Republican base, at least, by putting forward a very instructive and heart-felt case for the Bush-Cheney administration.

I think John Edwards, when he said, “You are not being straight on Iraq,” was trying to frame this campaign on Iraq.

Dick Cheney kept saying, “It's broader than Iraq.  It's the war on terror. And if you want to win the war on terror, you have got to re-elect George Bush.”

And then when Dick Cheney turned to John Edwards and basically said to him, “You know what?  You are a young man, in too much of a hurry.  I never met you before in my life, until you walked on the stage tonight,” he was basically saying to the American people, “You may disagree with me, but I am steady and resolute, and I have a lot of experience, and you don't have to worry about the government if I am a heart beat away.

MSNBC:  What will the public most remember from this debate?

Russert:  “Does a long resume mean good judgment?”  Quote, unquote, John Edwards.  I think a sound bite we will hear from Edwards over and over again is, “You are not being straight with the American people on Iraq.” The sound bite we are going to hear from Dick Cheney is saying, “You can't win the war on terror without George Bush,” and, “If you can't stand up to Howard Dean, how can you stand up to al Qaida?”

MSNBC:  Did the two candidates do what they came to do?

Russert:  I think that John Edwards will rally the Democratic base because he kept defending John Kerry, which is something that Democrats want the vice president nominee to do. He will also win points with the Democratic base for going after Halliburton, for going after health care, for going after Iraq over and over again. But for the Republicans, they very much needed Dick Cheney to stand up and fight tonight, for their president, and for their ticket.  And he did just that.

I do not know how swing independent voters are going to come down on this, but I think they may wait and reserve judgment until Friday, and for the events to play out over the next month.

MSNBC:  Anything the candidates have to clean up for their vice presidential running mates this Friday night?

Russert:  I think the bigger spotlight on Friday will be on George Bush.  He needs a good debate performance. Republicans want that.  Swing independent voters who are undecided want that. He has to go out, much like Ronald Reagan in 1980, and, after a dismal first debate, go out in the second debate and make emphatic case that he should in this case remain as commander-in-chief and president of the United States.

MSNBC:  Were you surprised by some of the nastiness, from both sides, and the level of discourse during this debate? Bush vs. Kerry issue-by-issue

Russert:  No, because I realized just how these men were treating each other on the campaign trail.  There are issues that really do divide these two – they’re not like each other at all… this stern CEO and this folksy trial lawyer.  They just plain are in two different worlds.

MSNBC:  So, they can afford to be the “hatchet men”, allowing the presidential candidates can be more presidential?

Russert:  Sure.  They don’t have to subscribe to the same niceties that the top of the ticket does.

Both these men had a role Tuesday night and I think they both achieved it.

The Republicans were petrified that Dick Cheney would not have a good night – like one the president did not have last Thursday – and the momentum would be huge for Kerry-Edwards going into Friday.

The Democrats were petrified that John Edwards wouldn’t measure up as a viable national candidate on that platform.

I think both Dick Cheney and John Edwards did what they had to do last night.

MSNBC:  They seemed to echo some of the points made during the first debate… sometime verbatim?

Russert:  Word for word!  More soldiers died in July than in June… 90% of the causalities, etcetera.

What it does is freeze the race until Friday.  I don’t think we’ll see much change in the polls until Friday night.  Then, it’s the main event – John Kerry/George Bush once again.

MSNBC:  Was Vice President Dick Cheney successful in suggesting Kerry-Edward do what is politically expedient when he asked how, if they couldn’t stand up to the anti-war pressure that Howard Dean represented, how could they be expected to stand up to al Qaida?

Russert:  It’s gospel to the Republican base that John Edwards and John Kerry voted for the war because it was a general election vote – they wanted to be tough on national security if they ran in a November election.  And its gospel that they voted against the money for the troops because it was the middle of the primary season, with Howard Dean, the anti-war candidate.  That played right to the Republican base and you could hear the republicans cheering Dick Cheney on.

The bigger issue for John Edwards is can he lay out a coherent vision, which is contrary to Dick Cheney’s, which is consistent with his votes?

I think he made a start Tuesday night, but he was not entirely successful.

MSNBC:  When John Edwards explained their votes by saying they started feeling nervous about the lack of plans and the lack of analysis, did that resonate at all?

Russert:  They did two things.  They said if you take the money from the tax cut on the wealthiest Americans, we’ll vote for it.  That did not succeed.  That went down.  Then their second vote was considered a protest vote.

It’s hard however for people to understand it.

I’ve had supporters of Kerry say to me, “You know the better way would be if he had voted against the authorization of the war, but then when it went forward, vote money for the troops.”  That’s easier to defend intellectually and would probably connect better with the American people.

MSNBC:  This debate also centered on domestic issues, allowing Senator Edwards to criticize the millions of jobs that have been lost and the millions of people who have fallen into poverty during the Bush administration.  Did he score any points in that area?

Russert:  I think he did -- particularly in Ohio.  George Bush carried the state by 170,000 votes in 2000. They lost 225,000 jobs over the last four years.

Republicans tell me every time the Democrats talk about the economy and health care the Democrats win and add that if they can keep the issues on national security and war on terror, the Republican win.  That’s the Republican view.

MSNBC:  So, the bases were solidified, but what about the undecided voters – did this debate result in any movement among them?

Russert:  I think what they did is they saw that John Edwards could be competitive in this arena, but they saw Dick Cheney make a very robust defense of his man, George Bush. It probably didn’t change many minds, but it got people more interested and focused on Friday’s debate.

MSNBC:  In pretty much calling him an absentee senator, Dick Cheney, said he had never met Senator Edwards until Tuesday night.  Is that true?

Russert:  No, that is not true.  In fact, on April 8th of 2001, they were on Meet the Press together – Dick Cheney first and then John Edwards after.  They stopped and shook hands.  They were also at a prayer meeting together.

Maybe he didn’t remember, but he is clearly trying to give the impression that John Edwards is a young, ambitious man, who’s in a hurry and just doesn’t stop by the Senate and do his job in a serious way, but is out campaigning and politicking – suggesting it’s all politics.

I thought that John Edwards would call him on it right at that very moment.  I still don’t know why he didn’t.  It may be because he was always trying to find a bigger issue to take on.

MSNBC:  If there was no clear winner and no clear loser, was the debate worth it?

Russert:  You know the good thing about Tuesday night is it reinforced what we saw last Thursday.  There are differences in this campaign.  There are differences between Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards.  And the American people are hearing them, listening to them and they have to make up their minds.  Right now, this race is too close to call.

I don't know how much this debate will move those swing independent voters -- convince them to lock in with either George Bush or John Kerry -- but we clearly understood again these strategies:

Iraq versus the war on terror. Roll back the tax cut, make it permanent.  Emphasis on health care and on education and more spending of the Democratic side, Vice President Cheney saying basically, “stay the course.”

Undecideds, it’s time.  You have three weeks.  What are you going to do? 

We’ll find a lot more out Friday.


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