NEW YORK - If Dick Cheney and John Edwards hadn't been scrapping in the campaign appearance of their lives, they at least would have embodied a visual contrast worthy of vaudeville comics or TV anchormen.
Seated across the table from moderator Gwen Ifill in their vice presidential debate Tuesday night, Cheney and Edwards each was yin to the other's yang: old and young; contained and effusive; slouchy and peppy; hands clasped and hands dancing; Darth Vader and Peter Pan.
They even parted ways on the issue of hydration. Unlike Cheney, Edwards repeatedly took sips from his mug.
In sum, it was a joint TV appearance by two men who seemed to share nothing stylistically but a taste for dark suits and red ties.
Well, they had one other, not quite so inevitable thing in common (which turned out to be a welcome surprise for the audience): a tendency to flout the rules negotiated by their political parties on how the debates would be run.
Contrary to the rule meant to ensure that candidates spoke only to the moderator, each of them baldly addressed his opponent, often in feisty fashion. It began with Edwards' first response of the evening: "Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people."
Among Cheney's retorts was a slam at the first-term North Carolina senator's attendance record in Congress. Cheney noted that, as Vice President, he presides over the Senate, then told Edwards pointedly, "The first time I ever met you was when we walked on stage tonight."
A sly dig, to be sure. Also false: Cheney had met Edwards twice before. But Edwards let it slide - at least until his post-debate rally.
Several media pundits had forecast that the debate table's close quarters would inhibit the kind of strident give-and-take that isolated lecterns might invite.
But afterward, NBC's Tom Brokaw was one observer who corrected the record. This debate, he said, "proved you can have hand-to-hand combat while seated."
Meanwhile, the networks, reinstituting a policy from last Thursday's first presidential debate, continued to break rules, too, by showing the debaters in reaction shots - an explicit no-no.
But this time, neither candidate was embarrassed in the glare of split-screen, as President Bush had been, repeatedly caught blinking and looking peeved while his opponent, John Kerry, responded to a question.
Instead, Cheney, in reaction, favored a wary sidelong stare at Edwards. Edwards, in turn, often jotted notes on his pad, and, late in the debate, even ripped out a page, the sound interfering with Cheney's words.
During the 98-minute faceoff at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ifill - of PBS' "NewsHour" and "Washington Week in Review" - generally handled her duties with poise, although bobbling one sequence of statement-and-response.
But during the session, she wasn't about to be bullied.
"I can respond, Gwen," said Cheney at one point when she asked for his rebuttal, "but it's gonna take more than 30 seconds."
"Well, that's all you got," she said firmly. He flashed a wan smile.
Despite the sometimes lively exchanges between the two candidates, the campaign's sole vice-presidential debate fell short of great theater. Nor did it always feel like a real debate, as much as like two stand-ins busily defending running mates who weren't there.
But as television, "The Veep Debate" made for a vivid display of clashing styles. You could have even turned the sound off and gotten the message. It was all right there on the screen.
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