MSNBC IS ON DRUGS, AND OTHER REACTION….So the debate had just ended and Edwards had pretty much rocked the first hour, even if he fell off a bit during the last thirty minutes thanks to some seriously doofy questions from Gwen Ifill, and MSNBC moved straight to Chris Matthews and his gang of four, who all proceeded to proclaim that the winner, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was…Dick Cheney?

Huh? An argument that the debate ended in a tie might be one thing. But listen to this:
Andrea Mitchell–“I think Dick Cheney did awfully well at, first of all, putting John Edwards in his place, saying that I have been presiding over the Senate and I didn’t meet you until tonight. Talking about his not having been on the job was pretty devastating.”
Ron Reagan–“This time, I think the chattering classes, and I include all of us among them, will come out on the side of, there was a stature gap there, and it was to Cheney’s advantage.”
Jon Meacham–“I think that the vice president did very, very well. He turned in a strong and serene performance, compared to Edwards, who I think seemed like Kerry-light.”
Joe Scarborough–“I tell you, tonight, no doubt about it. Edwards got obliterated by Dick Cheney.”
And, of course, leader of the pack Chris Matthews–“Will the liberal press admit that Cheney won?….The analogy would be a water pistol against a machine gun. Every once in a while, [Edwards] would take a squirt at the vice president, and then he would just — the vice president would just turn the Howitzer on the guy. It was all the points about attendance record, the tremendous amount of homework the Republican candidate for V.P. did here, the incumbent. I don’t think this well-rehearsed and well-briefed senator from North Carolina was ready for the assault.”

I don’t know what channel they had their dials turned to, but here’s the debate I watched.

Edwards, looking–if possible–even younger than usual, answered Democratic naysayers by perfectly filling the role of attack dog. This does two things. It’s enormously effective because it makes the Kerry/Edwards case in a more clear and pointed way than we’ve heard before. The raves about the man’s skills as a charming trial lawyer are not misplaced. It also leaves Kerry as the only man in this race who is above the fray, free to play offense. In both debates, the Republicans have consistently been defensive, which–as we’ve seen–makes them a bit testy. With Edwards taking the brunt of the blows, Kerry seems, well, presidential.

As Kerry did last Thursday, Edwards did miss a couple of opportunities to hit questions out of the park. When asked about the divisions in the country, Edwards started off on the right track, pointing out that this didn’t just happen. “The reality is it is not an accident. It’s the direct result of the choices they’ve made and their efforts that have created division in America.” But this would have been a perfect place to hammer home the points from this already-classic Boston Globe article on how Republicans have taken political incivility and abuse of power to a whole different level. The issue should be a clear winner for Democrats and would have the added benefit of making the case for a change of power in Congress as well (the Kerry campaign has been surprisingly silent on that point). But Edwards made his short point and moved back to repeat some points about health care.

Similarly, when Ifill set him up with a question about whether changing one’s mind is always a bad thing, Edwards chose to hit Bush/Cheney on their flip-flops instead of pressing the much stronger argument that this administration has been consistently wrong, that most Americans believe we are moving in the wrong direction on a whole host of issues and that we should not value leaders who refuse to acknowledge their mistakes and re-think policies. A fight about who is the bigger flip-flopper is not a fight the Kerry/Edwards campaign should want to have right now.

That said, Edwards’ overall performance was outstanding on both style and substance. And even if that was lost on the folks over at MSNBC, viewers saw it. CNN ran a short segment with their pen of undecided voters and showed the points at which the dial-a-meter ratings were highest for each candidate. But what they didn’t note was more interesting. The baselines for Cheney and Edwards weren’t the same. Cheney’s baseline was pretty consistent at 5 (on a one to ten scale) and he peaked around 8. Edwards, on the other hand, started off with a baseline above 7. That’s pretty amazing.

Update: Over at Salon, Eric Boehlert says the exact same thing about MSNBC.

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Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.