American Vice President Dick Cheney squared up to his election challenger John Edwards today in their one and only live televised debate.
An energised Senator Edwards slammed the current administration for its handling of Iraq and the failure to capture terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.
But Mr Cheney was unrepentant on Iraq and insisted that if America was to win the war on terror, the people must return President George Bush to office.
He said: “What we did in Iraq was exactly the right thing to do. If I had to recommend again I would recommend exactly the same course of action.”
The debate, in Ohio, took on greater meaning after Democratic presidential challenger Senator John Kerry saw his poll figures rise after taking on Mr Bush in the first of three debates last week.
Today’s vice presidential debate also came in the wake of comments by the former Administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer, who said there were never enough US troops sent to the war torn country.
“They also did not have a plan to win the peace,” Mr Edwards said of the Bush-Cheney Republican White House.
Mr Edwards accused Mr Cheney of “not being straight” about the war.
He said US casualties were rising by the month and the US was bearing 90% of the cost and suffering 90% of the dead and wounded.
Mr Cheney challenged the figures, saying the Iraqi security forces had taken nearly half of the casualties.
“For you to demean their sacrifice is beyond the pale,” he said.
Mr Edwards, a 51-year-old relative newcomer to US politics stared down Mr Cheney, a Washington veteran, as he said: “There is no connection between the attacks of September 11 and Saddam Hussein.
“You have gone around the country suggesting that there is some kind of connection.”
He accused the Bush Administration of failing to capture Osama bin Laden when he was cornered in Afghanistan, and instead switching the focus to Iraq.
But Mr Cheney countered that the situation in Iraq should be viewed in the “broader context of the war on terror”.
He said: “Saddam Hussein had been listed on the state sponsors of terrorism.
“He had an established relationship with al-Qaida.
Iraq was the “most likely nexus” of terrorism and may have supported terrorists seeking to attack America with weapons of mass destruction, he said.
Mr Cheney, 63, said Mr Edwards’ comments about Iraq showed that he was “not prepared to deal with states that sponsor terrorists”
“Freedom is the best antidote to terror,” he added.
“If we want to win the war on terror, it is pretty clear to me that the choice is George Bush, not John Kerry.”
He said of Mr Kerry: “I do not believe he has the qualities we need from a Commander in Chief.”
He said Mr Kerry would “not pursue the kind of aggressive policies we need” to win the war on terror.
Mr Cheney said there was a “track record that goes back to the 1970s” showing that Mr Kerry was consistently on the “wrong side of defence issues”.
But Mr Edwards defended Mr Kerry, saying: “He said we will find terrorists where they are and kill them before they do harm to the American people.
“He also said very clearly that he will never give any country veto power over the security of the United States of America.”
Mr Edwards said the war on terrorism should be aggressive but also “smart”.
And he stole a line from Mr Bush on terrorism saying that “the best defence is good offence”.
He accused Mr Bush and Mr Cheney of allowing Iraq and North Korea to further their nuclear weapons programs.
And he added that Mr Bush and Mr Cheney had “created a haven for terrorists” in Iraq.
But Mr Cheney insisted that senior al-Qaida figure Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has led insurgent attacks, hostage taking and beheadings in Iraq, was always linked with Saddam Hussein.
Mr Edwards hit back: “There are 60 countries who have members of al-Qaida in them. How many of those countries are we going to invade?”
Both men addressed Mr Edward’s lack of political experience. He is a fresh-faced first-term Senator from North Carolina, who used to be a trial lawyer.
“Frankly, senator, you have a record that’s not very distinguished,” Mr Cheney said.
But Mr Edwards replied that good judgement was more important than years of service.
“Mr Vice President, I don’t think the country can take four more years of this type of experience,” he said.
As expected, Mr Edwards attempted to discredit Mr Cheney by linking him the firm he was once CEO of, Halliburton.
Mr Edwards said Halliburton had in the past done business with “sworn enemies” like Iran.
Mr Cheney called the comments a “smoke screen”.
The debate also addressed domestic issues such as tax, healthcare and jobs.
Mr Edwards also slammed the Bush Administration for losing 1.6 million private sector jobs and 2.7 million manufacturing jobs.
This was the first Administration in 70 years to have such a record, he said.
Mr Cheney said Mr Kerry had voted for a “large number of tax increases” during his time in the Senate.
Mr Cheney and Mr Edwards sat just a few feet apart around a semicircular table on a stage at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland.
The US is evenly divided in the polls as the November 2 election approaches.
A Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today on Sunday, indicated a dead heat with each candidate at 49%.
That figure was a swing in favour of Mr Kerry who had been several points behind since September.