The battle between Republicans and Democrats will be cranked up with a showdown between George Bush and John Kerry tomorrow night after both sides claimed victory in the often personal and scathing vice-presidential debate on Tuesday night.
Mr Kerry and President Bush are set to meet in St Louis, Missouri, for the second of three televised debates with polls showing the two virtually tied - not only in the crucial battleground state of Missouri but across the nation as well.
After Mr Bush's poor performance in the first presidential debate last week in Miami, Republicans received some heart from Tuesday night's rough and tumble encounter between the President's deputy, Dick Cheney, and Mr Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, in Cleveland, Ohio.
The vastly experienced and often grumpy Mr Cheney was matched by the more vigorous and charismatic, yet less experienced, Mr Edwards. Instant polls conducted by US news organisations indicated that the very different pair were fairly evenly matched. Certainly, neither delivered any sort of knock-out blow. Much of the debate focused on national security and the war on Iraq with Mr Edwards, 51, accusing Mr Cheney, 63, of misleading the country over the alleged involvement of Saddam Hussein in the attacks of 11 September 2001.
"You are still not being straight with the American people," declared Mr Edwards, sounding forceful, as Mr Cheney sat just a few feet away. "Mr Vice-President, there is no connection between the attacks of September 11th and Saddam Hussein. The 9-11 Commission has said it. Your own Secretary of State has said it. And you've gone around the country suggesting that there is some connection. There is not."
Mr Cheney, probably the most powerful vice president in history, started the debate looking nervous and unsettled, but he gradually settled - even if he made a number of statements that were quickly shown afterwards to be false. [At one point he claimed he had never before met Mr Edwards - an attack on the North Carolina's Senator allegedly poor attendance record in Washington - though aides quickly found a photograph of the pair dating from 2001.] Conservatives said that, at the very least, Mr Cheney had applied the brakes to the momentum the Democrats had gathered after Mr Bush's agitated and shallow performance last week.
Vice-presidential debates are usually flat - Lloyd Bentsen's memorable "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" putdown of Dan Quayle in the 1988 campaign is among the exceptions - and rarely play an important role in deciding a campaign's outcome.
This time was no different and both debators avoided the potential pitfalls that could have provided the opposition with a clear victory. Mr Edwards sounded firm and knowledgeable on foreign affairs - an area in which his lack of experience has been attacked by Republicans - and Mr Cheney, while retaining something of the manner of an old and rather mangy dog being nipped at by a puppy, avoided appearing too grumpy and bad-tempered.
Mr Cheney made sure to point out Mr Kerry's perceived confused and shifting position on Iraq - a point Mr Bush failed to make effectively last week. "You're not credible on Iraq because of the enormous inconsistencies that John Kerry and you have cited time after time after time," Mr Cheney said to Mr Edwards.
In turn, Mr Edwards continued to shore up Mr Kerry's claim to be able to protect the American people against the threat of terrorism. He also argued that the war in Iraq, which has cost the lives of more than 1,000 US troops and thousands of Iraqi civilians, was unnecessary, based on false intelligence and diverted resources from the hunt for al-Qa'ida.
"We were attacked by al-Qa'ida and Osama bin Laden. We went into Afghanistan and very quickly the administration ... began to plan for the invasion of Iraq. Listen carefully to what the vice president is saying. Because there is no connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of September 11th - period."
In Cleveland yesterday, the morning after the debate, one undecided voter, a very rare species in this election, Robert Simon, 51, a college professor at Levin College of Urban Affairs, claimed the debate had not shifted the dynamic of the contest. "They were both good," he said. "They were both solid. I think it was a draw. Last night did not change a thing."
* Staff of billionaire George Soros were quick to seize on a slip made by Mr Cheney during the debate when he directed viewers to factcheck.com, a website he said would disprove allegations made about Halliburton, his former company. ButMr Soros' staff quickly bought the domain name and posted a message entitled "Why We Must Not Re-Elect George Bush", urging the public to vote for Mr Kerry. The Vice President had, in fact, meant to say factcheck.org.
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