Cheney and Lieberman in low-key, polite debate


DANVILLE, Ky. - Taking the gloves off, in a gentlemanly way, Republican Dick Cheney accused the Clinton-Gore administration in last night's vice presidential debate of "eight years of talk and no action" on the nation's most pressing problems.

His rival, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, responded by pointing to the economic boom of the 1990s.

"Dick Cheney must be one of the few people who think nothing has been accomplished in the last eight years," the Connecticut Democrat said.

The 90-minute debate, from this town of 16,000 in rural central Kentucky, was low-key and informal throughout, with occasional bursts of wit, in contrast to Tuesday's tense and combative duel between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Sitting side by side at a table last night, the candidates ducked a sensitive question from the moderator, Bernard Shaw of CNN, about whether gay and lesbian relationships deserve full constitutional protections.

Lieberman, while saying that homosexuals are "children of the same awesome God" as everyone else, indicated that he thought marriage should be limited to heterosexual couples. He said he is "open" to addressing the "unfairness" of such issues as legal rights and health benefits for gay partners.

Cheney, who has a daughter who is a lesbian, appeared visibly uncomfortable with the question.

"People should be free to go into any kind of relationship they want to enter into. It's no one's business in terms of regulating behavior in that regard," said Cheney, expressing a more tolerant view than some conservative Republicans.

Calling the issue of government-sanctioned gay marriage "a tougher problem," he said he didn't "necessarily" see a federal role in the question, adding: "I try to be open-minded about it as much as I can and tolerant of those relationships."

Both men largely stuck to their pledges, stated at the outset, to avoid personal attacks, while still trying to skewer each other's positions, in a soft-spoken way, on matters such as tax cuts, Medicare and military readiness.

Picking up a central Bush campaign theme, Cheney praised his running mate's success in reaching across partisan lines in Texas as he criticized the Clinton-Gore administration for failing to provide bipartisan leadership in Washington.

Cheney said that was the reason why there had been no solution to the problems facing Medicare, Social Security and public education.

Lieberman agreed that there is too much partisanship in Washington but pointed to bipartisan action to eliminate the budget deficit, reform welfare and attack crime as evidence that the administration had worked effectively with Republicans in Congress.

He rejected Cheney's claim that Gore had failed to keep his campaign promises, noting the prosperity the country now enjoys. In a dig at his opponent, Lieberman added that Gore had delivered on his campaign promises "bigtime," a reference to an open-mike slip by the Republican at a Labor Day campaign event.

The Democrat went on to note, in a nod to Ronald Reagan's famous line from a 1980 presidential debate, that the country - and Cheney, who became a millionaire in the 1990s - is "better off than you were eight years ago, too."

But Cheney got the better of the exchange, though not necessarily the debate.

"I can tell you, Joe, the government had absolutely nothing to do with it," he retorted, to a wave of laughter from the audience in the arts center auditorium at Centre College.

When Lieberman tried a comeback - by joking that his wife is saying he should go into the private sector, too - he only dug himself in deeper.

"Well, I'm going to try to help you do that, Joe," Cheney shot back, grinning.

The quick-witted exchange followed a serious discussion of foreign policy and national security, topics largely ignored in this week's first presidential debate.

Neither man committed a major slip or broke fresh ground on issues. Their encounter - which both sides had said was not apt to shift many votes - seems unlikely to alter the course of the race.

Lieberman appeared the more TV-savvy of the two, delivering his answers straight to the camera and the millions of viewers at home. Cheney spent most of the evening talking to the moderator or to the top of the table where the three men sat.

But in a theatrical gesture at the debate's key moment, Cheney removed his glasses as he deplored what he said was the failure of the Clinton-Gore administration to resolve the partisan warfare in Washington.

Cheney, who spent most of his adult life in the capital and has never sold his house in the Northern Virginia suburbs, said he has a "different perspective" on Washington since being forced out of his job as President Bush's defense secretary by the 1992 election and taking a lucrative oil industry job in Texas.

On the current unrest in Yugoslavia, both men said the United States should do everything it can, short of military force, to see that Slobodan Milosevic relinquishes power.

Foreign policy has scarcely been mentioned in the presidential campaign, but the democratic opposition's takeover of parliament in Belgrade thrust those issues into the forefront.

In this week's Bush-Gore debate in Boston, moderator Jim Lehrer asked the candidates, hypothetically, what action the United States should take if Milosevic refused to leave office after losing last month's election.

Gore said the United States should do "'everything we can," in a measured way, to support "the will of the Serbian people." Bush said the Russians should use their influence to convince Milosevic to leave.

In response, Gore was quick to disparage Bush's suggestion as a bad idea, since Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has not yet been willing to recognize opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica as the winner of the election.

Post-debate commentators have seized on that exchange as evidence of Bush's weakness on foreign policy and Gore's more sure-handed grasp of the issue.

But Cheney argued last night that Gore had been wrong when he "pooh-poohed" Bush's response and argued that Bush "deserves a lot of credit" for his answer. Cheney noted that the Clinton administration has now begun an effort to involve the Russians in the crisis.

"I would go beyond that," Cheney added. "This is an opportunity for the United States to test President Putin of Russia. Now is the time we ought to find out whether he's committed to democracy [or] whether he represents the old guard in the Soviet Union."

One of Cheney's goals going into last night's debate was to underscore his own experience on global matters, as a way of shoring up Bush's thin credentials in that area and allaying any concerns that voters might have.

Going into last night's event, the vice presidential candidates were preparing to defend themselves against the attack lines that have developed since they were selected for their respective tickets.

Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate to be nominated by a major party, has been criticized for excessive religiosity in his campaign speeches and for abandoning long-held positions in favor of school vouchers and privatizing Social Security, views that are at odds with the Democratic Party's liberal wing.

He is also under fire for his refusal to give up his race for re-election to the Senate, which could wind up hurting his party's efforts to regain control of that body.

Cheney, meantime, has been battling perceptions that he has brought far less excitement to his party's ticket than his Democratic counterpart brought to his.

Cheney has also been the subject of a series of unflattering news reports, ranging from his failure to vote in recent elections to his plans for the millions of dollars in stock options that he earned as head of a Texas oil industry firm.

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