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A gentlemanly contrast to presidential debate

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 6, 2000


There were no Dan Quayles or Adm. Stockdales on stage. Nobody compared themselves to Jack Kennedy. No one asked, "Who am I? Why am I here?"

Joseph Lieberman and Dick Cheney proved themselves to be men of substance Thursday night, comfortable in their own skin and in their very different political philosophies. Their vice presidential debate proved far more nourishing than the stiff encounter between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Very little sugar, but plenty of fiber.

More clearly and articulately than the men on the top of the ticket, Cheney and Lieberman thoughtfully outlined some of the campaigns' stark differences in areas such as tax policy, military readiness and Social Security.

Cheney defended Bush's $1.3-trillion in proposed tax cuts. He effectively criticized Gore's $500-billion in proposed tax cuts as targeted incentives to "live your life the way they want you to live their life."

Lieberman used a line of attack similar to Gore's, noting that the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers would receive nearly half of the tax cut total under Bush. But he nearly got lost in the same thicket of numbers as the candidates for president did two nights earlier.

"You would have to be a CPA to understand what he just said," Cheney said.

As expected, Cheney was strongest in a discussion about the military. The former secretary of defense, in a less confrontational manner than he has in the past, argued that the military is not as prepared as it should be in terms of training and equipment. While Gore has promised to increase military spending more than Bush, Lieberman's promise that a Gore administration would not neglect the military sounded somewhat hollow.

Cheney also deftly came to the defense of Bush over his suggestion to turn to Russia to resolve the problems in Yugoslavia. Bush was quickly "pooh-poohed," as Cheney put it, by Gore earlier this week when he suggested during the presidential debate that Russia could be of some help. Now the Clinton administration is asking Russian President Vladimir Putin to put pressure on Slobodan Milosevic to leave Yugoslavia.

"Gov. Bush was correct in his assessment and his recommendation," Cheney said.

It was a quiet affirmation that worked far better than the loud gloating many politicians could not have resisted.

Cheney was less successful in other areas where Lieberman had more freedom to make clear declarations.

On the question of the abortion pill RU-486, Cheney could not promise that a Bush administration would not endorse legislation to overturn the Food and Drug Administration's approval of the pill. Lieberman said a Gore administration could take that pledge.

On Social Security, Cheney could not pledge that all future Social Security beneficiaries would receive at least the same level of benefits under Bush's plan to allow younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes. Lieberman eagerly promised that Gore's plan could keep that pledge that benefits would not be reduced.

Both men responded with appropriate outrage as they fielded an awkward question about racial profiling by CNN moderator Bernard Shaw, who asked them to pretend to be African-American. It was the same sort of question that ruined Michael Dukakis, who gave a professorial reply in a 1988 debate about the death penalty when asked how he would respond if his wife had been raped and murdered.

Perhaps a vice presidential debate in Danville, Ky., is like a summer show in the Catskills compared to a presidential debate. But Cheney and Lieberman were so at ease, so unscripted, that they upstaged the stars of the tickets.

Cheney, whose dour convention speech and campaign appearances have been uninspiring, seemed warmer and less threatening even as he raised familiar criticisms of the Democrats. Lieberman's dry humor came through on several occasions.

Their snappy exchange toward the end, when Lieberman joked about returning to the private sector after seeing Cheney's millions and Cheney said he was trying to help him do just that, came without a trace of meanness.

Maybe it was the format, sitting closely together around a table instead of standing stiffly behind lecterns far apart. But Cheney and Lieberman seemed much more at ease and respectful of each other than Gore and Bush. They rightly criticized policy and positions, but there were no personal attacks.

This debate wasn't sexy. The laugh track that accompanied previous vice presidential debates stayed on the shelf with one exception. But for voters interested in a serious discussion of policy differences rather than cheap entertainment, this was a keeper.

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