CLEVELAND - Both presidential campaigns looked for a boost at the other's expense Tuesday as Vice President Dick Cheney and Democratic rival John Edwards squared off for the only vice presidential debate of the 2004 election. Most of the pre-debate talk was about Iraq.
Polls showed a tightening presidential race and suggested Democratic nominee John Kerry had gained ground in his first debate last week with President Bush.
Mr. Kerry, who will debate Mr. Bush again Friday night, said before the running mates' confrontation that Mr. Cheney should acknowledge mistakes made in Iraq. He cited remarks by Paul Bremer, the former head of the U.S. occupation, that the United States did not have enough troops to stabilize the country.
Mr. Edwards himself told supporters at a pre-debate rally in Parma, Ohio, "When I walk into that debate tonight and I sit down, I am there for you." A first-term senator who had never been in a one-on-one televised debate, Mr. Edwards added: "John Kerry was there for you last Thursday. For us, that's what this is about. That's what this fight is about."
On the Republican side, Bush strategists hoped a strong showing by Mr. Cheney at the nationally televised debate at Case Western Reserve University would arrest any momentum the Democratic ticket had gotten from the first debate. Mr. Cheney's mission was to return public attention to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Mr. Bush's handling of the war on terrorism, seen as strong points for the president in the election.
Democrats suggested Mr. Edwards' cheerful personality and speaking ability as a former trial lawyer could translate into a winning debate performance. He sought to focus attention on Mr. Bush's handling of the war in Iraq and the national economy, seen as weak spots for the president.
Among those slated to be in the debate audience was Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has clashed with Mr. Cheney, including a confrontation on the Senate floor in June in which Mr. Cheney cursed Mr. Leahy. Mr. Cheney later refused to apologize. Bush campaign officials raised the issue of Mr. Leahy's presence with debate organizers.
The format of the debate - the two candidates seated at a table - was the same as the 2000 vice presidential debate between Mr. Cheney and Democrat Joe Lieberman.
Democrats had preferred a format in which Mr. Edwards could move about the stage - a strong point for him - but gave in to Bush campaign preferences for the table, seen as favoring Mr. Cheney's more subdued style of delivery.
The Kerry campaign made a series of concessions on debate format in exchange for agreement by the Bush campaign for three debates.
The tightening of the race after the first debate invested more importance than usual in the showdown between Mr. Cheney, 63, and Mr. Edwards, 51. Both sides saw it as an important chapter in the race, a contest in which neither side could afford a mistake.