Cheney, Lieberman Spar in Casual Debate

The vice-presidential candidates, Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Joseph Lieberman, engaged in a relaxed, confident exchange Thursday night that was short on sparks and thick with policy disagreements and humor.

They opened their first and only showdown with a flurry of numbers as each tried to paint the other’s budget proposal as reckless.

On Medicare, Social Security and education reform, Cheney said the Democrats — led by Lieberman’s running mate, Al Gore — had wasted their time in office.

“Eight years of talk and no action,” Cheney said, echoing a refrain of his ticket mate, George W. Bush. “They’ve been in a position of responsibility in the White House with a powerful interest, if you will, in Washington D.C., and they’ve been unable to work with others.”

For Better or Worse

Lieberman defended the vice president, saying he had delivered “big time” as a strong leader with a record of bipartisanship and riffing on a line Ronald Reagan used to zing Democrat Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential debates.

“If you asked most people in America today that famous question … ‘Are you better off today than you were eight years ago?’ most people would say, ‘Yes.’”

The line set up a back-and-forth of one-liners between the candidates, as Lieberman poked fun of Cheney for making millions in recent years at the helm of the Halliburton oil services company in Texas.

“And I’m pleased to see, Dick, from the newspapers, that you’re better off than you were eight years ago, too,” Lieberman said.

Unruffled, Cheney shot back, “I can tell you, Joe, that the government had absolutely nothing to do with it.”

Asked later whether Lieberman had corrupted his reputation in Congress as a straight shooter since joining the Gore campaign, Cheney expressed disappointment in the Connecticut senator.

“I like the old Joe Lieberman better than I like the new Joe Lieberman,” Cheney said. “Having joined with Al Gore, that depth of conviction that we had admired before isn’t quite as strong as it was, perhaps, in the past.”

Carrying the Torch

But mostly, they argued over policy.

Cheney tried to portray Lieberman and Gore as “old way” tax-and-spend liberals who would blow projected federal budget surpluses on expanding government programs.

“Gore promises $900 billion in spending over and above the surplus,” Cheney said, promising a “new era.”

Echoing the argument laid out by Bush on the trail, at the GOP nominating convention and in the first presidential debate, Cheney said his campaign would take “one quarter of the surplus and return it to the taxpayer.”

“The average American family is paying about 40 percent in federal, state and local taxes,” Cheney said. “We think it is appropriate to return to the American people so that they can make choices themselves in how that money ought to be spent.”

By Lieberman’s math, this would require that “they raid the Medicare trust fund to pay for … their tax cut and other proposals they can’t afford to pay for.”

Lieberman warned Bush and Cheney would spend $1.6 trillion (the Bush price tag of $1.3 trillion plus the projected loss of interest from less taxes coming in) of the $1.8 trillion surplus on tax cuts, bringing the nation “back down the road to higher interest rates, to higher unemployment.”

Two days after Bush and Gore met in the first of three presidential debates, Cheney and Lieberman sat just inches from one another for their debate. But the traditional vice-presidential role as the “hatchet man” on the ticket was not in evidence — at least at the policy-heavy start of their debate. In fact, both candidates opened by vowing to be positive.

Casual Exchange

The format allowed for no opening statements, but Lieberman made one anyway, talking about his mother and thanking the crowd. Cheney also offered thanks, but dove right into a pitch for his tax cut. The notoriously dry Cheney even cracked a joke.

“I too want to avoid any personal attacks,” Cheney said to Lieberman. “I promise not to bring up your singing.”

Lieberman captured headlines last month by singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” on a late-night talk show.

The event was held at tiny Centre College in Danville, Ky. Befitting the small-town setting, the candidates were preceded by an introduction from 10-year-old local boy Michael Ward, who helped this city fight to convince the campaigns to participate in the debate back when the Bush campaign was refusing to participate.

Dead Heat Set Stage

Vice-presidential debates aren’t known for swaying elections, but an ABCNEWS snap poll taken immediately after the debate showed most gave Cheney the win. The telephone poll of 539 registered voters who watched the vice-presidential debate found 43 percent thought Cheney won, 24 percent said Lieberman won, 27 percent called it a tie. Both men and women gave the edge to Cheney.

The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 points.

The format for the debate was less formal than Tuesday’s first presidential debate, where the two candidates stood behind lecterns. Lieberman and Cheney sat at a rounded desk, faced by debate moderator Bernard Shaw of CNN.

The second Bush-Gore debate, scheduled for Oct. 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C., will feature a similar talk-show format. The third and final presidential debate is set for Oct. 17 in St. Louis and will feature a town hall meeting setting. During negotiations with the Gore campaign and the Commission on Presidential Debates, Bush officials lobbied for the use of less formal debate formats.

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