Tonight it's Dick Cheney vs. John Edwards. The pit bull vs. the lapdog.
By some estimates, it may be the most-watched vice presidential debate in 20 years (see Note below).
Forty-one percent of voters, about 42 million people, plan to tune into the broadcast of tonight's debate from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center. In 2000, 29 million people watched Cheney debate Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, according to Nielsen Media Research.
But will it mean anything? These guys are, after all, running for the job that FDR's first veep, John Nance Garner, memorably described as "not worth a bucket of warm spit." (For what he actually said, click here.)
The answer to the question, provisionally at least, is yes.
Garner was a bit player – and a disgruntled one at that -- to a president who was always in charge and never in doubt. On the other hand, Dick Cheney is widely viewed as perhaps the most powerful vice president in history. Whether that's accurate we'll leave to the history books. He is, however, indisputably connected directly to two of the administration's most critical decisions:
-- To invade Iraq.
-- To cast the administration's tax cuts in a way that the benefits flow disproportionally to the richest 1 percent of Americans.
As the Washington Post's Dan Froomkin notes in a good pre-debate roundup,
… unlike at the vice presidential debate four years ago Cheney is now in the awkward position of defending an assailable record. Cheney has been the point man for many of the most disputed assertions made by the Bush administration.
Plus, the campaign clearly wants him to repair the damage inflicted by President Bush himself at last week's debate.
So Cheney will be on the spot. Edwards will push aggressively to put him on the defensive about Iraq and taxes to undermine any attempt to ameliorate President Bush's self-inflicted injuries from Debate 1. And Edwards is at the very least a far more skilled and compelling speaker.
However, in one critical area – experience in government – Cheney holds all the cards. The veep has devoted his career to government service (chief of staff for President Gerald Ford, congressman from Wyoming and defense secretary for Bush 1). There is hardly an area of government that Cheney cannot address with the authority of personal experience.
Edwards, a one-term U.S. senator, is a pup by comparison. He did not, however, become a millionaire trial lawyer, by being dumb or shallow. And the personality contrast between Edwards and Cheney could scarcely be greater.
Tune in (6 p.m. Pacific time on C-SPAN and C-SPAN2, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel). This is bound to be interesting and, "Cactus Jack" Garner notwithstanding, may even be meaningful.
Note: The most-watched vice presidential debate in history was the 1984 contest between then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and U.S. Representative Geraldine Ferraro of New York, who ran with Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale. That debate drew 56.7 million viewers.