In their one and only vice-presidential debate on Tuesday night, the running mates for President George Bush and Senator John Kerry for the November presidential elections argued over Iraq and US security policy.

They also expanded the terse exchange to key domestic issues such as taxes and gay marriage.

Edwards - Kerry's running mate - said Cheney and Bush were ignoring the growing chaos in Iraq and diverting crucial attention from international threats such as the nuclear programmes in Iran and North Korea.

Eloquent Edwards

"Mr Vice-President, you are still not being straight with the American people," Edwards told Cheney, adding later: "I don't think the country can take four more years of this kind of experience."

The senator pledged that a Kerry-Edwards administration would be "truthful" to the American people.

But Cheney strongly defended the Bush administration's record in Iraq, rejecting claims the war was going badly or that the US was bearing too much of the burden.

"You are not credible on Iraq because of the enormous inconsistencies that John Kerry and you have voiced on Iraq," Cheney said. "We have not seen the kind of consistency that a commander-in-chief needs to have."

Dogged Cheney

Cheney repeated his arguments that Iraq harboured the al-Qaida linked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before the war - even though a CIA report has found no conclusive evidence of that - and that there were links between Iraq and al-Qaida.

"Mr Vice-President, there is no connection between the attacks of September 11 and Saddam Hussein," Edwards said, picking up from where Kerry had left off in last week's debate with Bush. 

Cheney said Kerry and Edwards shifted their views on Iraq in accordance with the political climate.

"It's a consistent pattern over time of always being on the wrong side of defence issues," Cheney said of Kerry. "A little tough talk in the midst of a campaign or as part of a presidential debate cannot obscure a record of 30 years of being on the wrong side of defence issues."

Special interests

Edwards portrayed Bush and Cheney as captives to special interests and highlighted the vice-president's ties to the oil industry and Texas energy giant Halliburton, which he headed from 1995 to 2000 and which now is the leading US military contractor in Iraq.

Edwards also hit out at Cheney's long track record, saying "a long resume did not automatically mean better judgment".

In the same breath, he pointed out that the vice-president had in the past voted against senate resolutions that called for the release of former South African political prisoner turned president Nelson Mandela.

He also accused Bush and Cheney of passing huge tax breaks for the rich and leaving the working class out of the equation.

"We don't just value wealth, which they do," Edwards said. "We value work."