Posted Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2004, at 10:10 PM PT- In tonight's debate, Vice President Dick Cheney made a lot of false and misleading statements about his foreign and defense policies—but Sen. John Edwards did a less than stellar job at countering them.

More than that, for whatever it's worth, Cheney possessed the demeanor of someone who could step into the commander in chief's chair at a moment's notice (he's been sitting in the chair, for all intents and purposes, the last three and a half years, after all)—while Edwards did not.

The debate began otherwise. Cheney came out of the box with surprising hesitation—and Edwards with startling strength. Asked about the latest extremely damning comments from former coalition chief Paul Bremer (that we never had enough troops in Iraq) and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (that he never saw a connection between Saddam and al-Qaida), Cheney replied that it's important to place Iraq in the "broader context of the global war on terrorism." He went on in that vague vein for the full two minutes.

Edwards came back slamming: "You are still not being straight with the American people." He recited the latest critiques of the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq with great clarity and wrapped it up with Kerry's strong slogan: "We need a fresh start."

Cheney gained ground, though, a few minutes later, precisely at a moment when he should have lost still more. Edwards charged Cheney with repeatedly drawing a connection between Saddam and 9/11. Cheney replied, "The senator's got his facts wrong. I've never suggested there's a connection." This was a bald lie. Yet Edwards didn't call him on it. He could have quoted Cheney on a dozen occasions wrongly claiming an absolute connection—but he didn't cite even one.

The vice president took the momentary lapse to go on the offensive, repeating over and over his well-rehearsed claim that John Kerry is weak and wavering, that he has a "consistent pattern of always being on the wrong side of defense issues"—voting to cut vital weapons, voting to cut intelligence, flip-flopping on the war against Saddam, etc.

Edwards mustered one of the arguments against these distortions. He noted that Cheney cut 80 weapons systems while he was secretary of Defense—many of the same weapons that he now accuses Kerry of voting to cut—after the end of the Cold War. Cheney didn't respond. But Edwards didn't deal with the other charges. He didn't point out that Kerry did not vote against all those weapons (because there was never a Senate vote on them to begin with). Nor did he offer a coherent explanation—even though there is one—of Kerry's (and his) vote against the $87 billion supplemental to arm the troops in Iraq.

Cheney then snapped a potentially deadly one-liner. He said he wondered why Kerry and Edwards first voted for the war resolution, then voted against the $87 billion. The only explanation, he figured, was that, in the interim, Howard Dean was gaining ground in the early primaries as an antiwar candidate. "If they couldn't stand up to pressures represented by Howard Dean," Cheney said, "how are they going to stand up to al-Qaida?"

Edwards could have chosen a number of ways to return that shot. But he didn't choose any of them. He didn't answer it directly. He thus failed to dispel the stereotype that Cheney sought to reinforce—that Kerry isn't resolute enough to deal with the world's new threats.

Another of Cheney's falsehoods was that the coalition in the Iraqi war last year was the same size as the coalition in the Iraqi war of 1991. There were 34 countries in '91, 30 countries today. This is sheer hokum, and Cheney—who helped put together the '91 coalition—knows it. In '91, much of that coalition sent lots of troops and money. Every major power of Western Europe and of the Arab League—including Saudi Arabia and even Syria—deployed divisions of armed troops on the ground, wings of combat planes in the air (or at least on runways). In the 2003 war, only Britain, Australia, and briefly Spain had any fighting forces worth mentioning.

Edwards didn't make this point. He did say that 90 percent of coalition casualties and 90 percent of costs have been borne by the United States. Cheney tried to turn even that indisputable fact against Edwards, chiding him for ignoring—and "demeaning"—the casualties suffered by Iraqi forces. Aren't they part of the coalition? Edwards elaborated on the distinction. Cheney was playing with semantics, and he knows enough to know that's what he was doing. Whether the audience knows enough is another matter.

Edwards was not without clear victories. Toward the end of the debate, he noted that, three years after 9/11, this administration has still not created a unified terrorist watch list. "What are we waiting for?" Edwards blasted. We have to be strong, but "we also have to be smart."

The moderator gave Cheney 30 seconds to rebut—and, amazingly, he declined the opportunity. What was that about? The Kerry campaign should put that moment of silence in a thousand ads. It's devastating.

Edwards also gave a good showing when asked to explain what Kerry meant by his "global test" remark. ("For America to lead … it is critical that we be credible," that our allies "can trust what we say.")

He also condemned the Bush administration's failure to stop Iran or North Korea developing nuclear weapons. Cheney had nothing to say in response.

Cheney came into this debate with a weak hand. The war in Iraq is going poorly. Casualties are mounting. Meaningful victory is increasingly elusive. The rhetorical foundations of the war—weapons of mass destruction, Saddam's connection to al-Qaida—are thinner than ever and acknowledged as such by more insiders every day.

Edwards referred to these trends and to the administration's misjudgments and misrepresentations. But he only referred to them. He didn't pound them home time and again.

The Bush-Cheney campaign has tried to deal with the administration's problems by switching the perspective—warning that Kerry will only make things worse. And Cheney did push this button over and over: "You're not credible. … You have a record that isn't so distinguished. … Your rhetoric would be a lot more credible if there was a record to back it up. … I don't believe [Kerry] has the qualities we need as a commander in chief"—all uttered with a tone of parental disappointment.

Kerry defused this tactic very effectively last Thursday. Edwards didn't tonight. It may be that reading a transcript of tonight's debate on foreign and defense policy—or, better still, a point-by-point outline of the transcript—might make Edwards come out the winner. Cheney, after all, spouted a fair bit of nonsense. And Edwards pointed out that some of it was nonsense. But my guess is a stronger impression was made by Cheney's withering assault on his challengers' qualifications for office. Edwards shot down some of the specific attacks, but he didn't mow down the barrage.

Whether Edwards lost ground for the Democratic ticket tonight, I don't pretend to know. But I would be surprised—at least when it comes to foreign and defense policy—if it turns out that he gained ground or accelerated the ticket's momentum. The good news for Bush may be that Cheney has given him a brief respite. The bad news for Bush is that he has to go two more rounds with Kerry and that, by the end of next week, tonight's B-players' match may be forgotten.

Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slate.

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