To this indictment, Edwards added two others. In Afghanistan, he blamed Bush for letting Osama Bin Laden escape Tora Bora to strike again. In Iran, he accused Cheney of opposing sanctions against "sworn enemies of the United States"—and an emerging nuclear threat—because Halliburton had business there. Together, the charges painted a picture of an administration that spent its ammunition on the wrong target, allowing more serious threats to flourish.
Edwards' assault took Cheney completely off his game. Cheney spent the first 15 minutes defending the administration, unable to deliver his prepared attacks on Kerry. He lost his cool and started to snap at Edwards, saying, "You probably weren't there to vote for that," and "You've got one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate." Though Edwards was delivering the harsher blows, Cheney looked meaner. But the most important effect of Edwards' onslaught was to provoke three gaffes from the vice president.
One was minor but conspicuous. "I am the president of Senate, the presiding officer," Cheney told the younger man, scolding him for poor attendance. "I'm up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they're in session. The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight." It took the Kerry campaign less than two hours to send reporters a picture of Cheney standing next to Edwards three years ago. In 2000, the Bush-Cheney campaign and the press roasted Al Gore for claiming in a debate that he had been with another public official (James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency) when in fact he hadn't. Now Cheney has committed the same offense in reverse.
The other gaffes were more serious. "I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11," Cheney said in response to Edwards' initial salvo. Later, Cheney tried to deflect a CIA report, which, according to the New York Times, "says it is now not clear whether Mr. Hussein's government harbored members of a group led by the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi." Cheney insisted, "A CIA spokesman was quoted in that story as saying they had not yet reached the bottom line, and there is still debate." On the first question, Cheney pitted himself against a long, videotaped record of him suggesting connections between Iraq and 9/11. On the second, he pitted himself against a clear trend of intelligence, of which further details are likely to be leaked or extracted as the public feud grows between Cheney and skeptics in intelligence agencies.
With the Republican Convention extending into September, never has a trailing ticket had so little time to fight its way back into the race. Democrats desperately needed to regain and maintain control of the election agenda. Kerry had to knock Bush back on his heels in the first debate so he could broaden the discussion to domestic policy. Edwards had to do the same to Cheney, ideally generating new story lines about the administration's difficulty with reality. It's like a ninth-inning rally. Kerry got the lead-off hit. Edwards singled him to third. How will it end? Pass the popcorn.