US running mates clash over Iraq

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The Independent US

The two vice-presidential candidates in next month's US elections clashed over Iraq in their televised campaign debate.

The two vice-presidential candidates in next month's US elections clashed over Iraq in their televised campaign debate.

The Republican candidate Dick Cheney accused Democratics of turning against the war for political gain.

His Democratic challenger, John Edwards, accused the administration of mismanaging the conflict and of "not being straight" with the public. He said che United States is bearing 90 per cent of the cost of the conflict as well as suffering 90 per cent of the coalition's dead and wounded.

"We need a fresh start," he said.

Mr Cheney countered that the Iraqi security forces had taken nearly half of the casualties. "For you to demean their sacrifice is beyond the pale," he said to Edwards, seated practically at his elbow.

The vice president also criticised Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry for taking "the wrong side" on defence issues over the past three decades.

"I'm saying specifically that I don't believe he has the qualities we need in a commander in chief," he said.

The two men debated exactly four weeks before Election Day on Nov. 2 in a race for the White House that has drawn closer in recent days.

"Frankly, senator, you have a record that's not very distinguished," Mr Cheney said to Mr Edwards, citing him for a pattern of absences during his single term in the Senate.

Mr Edwards responded with a jab at the Bush-Cheney campaign's claim on experience, he said, "Mr Vice President, I don't think the country can take four more years of this type of experience."

Cheney listened politely to Edwards - a contrast to George Bush, who repeatedly grimaced and scowled last week while Kerry attacked the administration's record in their televised debate, an encounter that Kerry is widely perceived to have won.

Mr Cheney, 63, and Mr Edwards, 51, sat just a few feet apart around a semicircular table on a stage at Case Western Reserve University.

Mr Edwards said that in addition to mismanaging the war in Iraq, the administration had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Afghanistan at one point. But, he said, the President turned over the hunt for the mastermind behind the September 11 terrorist attacks to Afghan warlords.

"The senator has got his facts wrong," said Mr Cheney. "We've never let up on Osama bin Laden from Day One. We've actively and aggressively pursued him."

As for Iraq, the vice president said Kerry voted to authorize the war, then voted against an $87 billion aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the Massachusetts senator - as well as Edwards - had changed their mind due to the pressure of the Democratic primary campaign.

"These are two individuals who have been for the war when the headlines were good and against it when their poll ratings were bad," Mr Cheney said. He added, "If they couldn't stand up to pressures that Howard Dean represented, how can we expect them to stand up to al-Qa'ida?" he said, referring to the former Vermont governor who took a strong anti-Iraq War position in his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

On domestic issues, Mr Edwards said the President has presided over a loss of jobs during his administration - the first president to do so since Herbert Hoover sat in the White House during the Great Depression in the early 1930s. He also said more Americans are in poverty, and living without health insurance, than when the president took the oath of office in 2001.

"The economy is on an upswing," the vice president said, with the creation of jobs. He noted that on Monday Bush had signed his fourth tax cut into law in four years.

Mr Cheney, whose daughter, Mary, is a lesbian, spoke supportively about gay relationships and said that "people ought to be free to choose any arrangement they want." At the same time, the President supports passage of a constitutional marriage to ban gay marriage, and Mr Cheney said, "He sets policy for this administration, and I support him."

Mr Edwards said: "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman and so does John Kerry." But he added, "We should not use the Constitution to divide this country."

Kerry and Bush have two remaining debates, on Friday in St Louis and on 13 October in Tempe, Arizona.