Cheney vs. Lieberman: Let's Get Ready to, um, Rumble!

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PAUL SAKUMA/AP

Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman

At Tuesday night's presidential debate George W. Bush succeeded in surpassing very low expectations. Tonight's vice presidential match-up provides his running mate, Dick Cheney, with a similarly underwhelming challenge: Showing America that he does, in fact, have a pulse.

For the impassive Cheney, that task is complicated by his opponent’s strengths. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who's perceived as an affable and talented wordsmith, has held elected office for the better part of three decades, and is well versed in debates. Cheney hasn’t faced an opponent's lectern in 12 years, when he last ran for Wyoming's sole seat in the House of Representatives.

And while Bush's spin team knew that carefully planted low expectations could only help their candidate Tuesday night, Cheney's handlers aren’t bothering to broadcast their apprehension. It's already out there.

As if Cheney needed another handicap, the relatively informal format of tonight's meeting — which will be held around a table, moderated by CNN's Bernard Shaw — could prove problematic. Cheney’s formal manner is better suited to more traditional debate protocol. If Lieberman can capitalize on his trademark humor early in the exchange, it's hard to imagine Cheney mustering the verbal energy to claim momentum.

If Cheney gets a chance, he could inflict a few blows on his opponent: Lieberman is vulnerable on his once staunch opposition to Hollywood-sponsored violence, which has dwindled considerably in the past few months of spectacular fundraising efforts in Los Angeles. Cheney's best shots, however, will probably come in the form of attacks on Gore's policy record and fundraising practices.

Lieberman's got plenty of ammunition as well, though. Cheney's famously conservative record (including votes against a ban on "cop-killer" bullets, and opposition to funding for school lunches, veterans' benefits and the Older Americans Act) doesn't play well in this year's "I’m more moderate than you are" campaign.

Historically, the vice presidential debates don't carry a lot of weight with voters — but they can allude to the spirit of each ticket. And while the Gore camp is relentlessly optimistic about tonight's meeting, counting on Lieberman's upbeat charm to win the day, there may be a lot of sweaty palms in the Bush entourage, as the GOP braces to a backpedal away from any hard-right positions that may infiltrate Cheney's tight-lipped rhetoric. After all, it's Bush's compassionate conservatism — not Cheney's old-fashioned brand — that could sway the all-important swing voters.