Republican Vice President Dick Cheney and Democratic Senator John Edwards clashed over the war in Iraq and the U.S. economy, in their only scheduled debate in this year's race for the White House.

The 90-minute debate between the candidates for vice president allowed Mr. Cheney to praise and defend President Bush, while Mr. Edwards did the same for his running mate, Senator John Kerry.

Vice President Cheney defended the war in Iraq, saying Saddam Hussein had an established relationship with the al-Qaida terrorist organization and that military action was necessary to protect America.

"The effort that we mounted with respect to Iraq focused specifically on the possibility that this was the most likely nexus between the terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. The biggest threat we face today is the possibility of terrorists smuggling a nuclear weapon or a biological agent into one of our own cities and threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans," Mr. Cheney said. "What we did in Iraq was exactly the right thing to do. If I had it to recommend all over again I would recommend exactly the same course of action."

Senator Edwards accused Vice President Cheney with not being honest with the American people about what he called the mess in Iraq and efforts to link the war with the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

"There is no connection between the attacks of September 11 and Saddam Hussein," countered Mr. Edwards. "The 9/11 Commission has said it, your own secretary of state has said it and you have gone around the country suggesting that there is some connection. There is not."

Senator Edwards criticized Mr. Cheney's ties to Halliburton, the company under fire for allegedly over-billing the Pentagon for services in Iraq. The vice president was chief executive of Halliburton until four years ago, when he resigned to join the Republican Party ticket.

Mr. Cheney responded by saying the Democratic candidates bring up the connection to throw up a smokescreen and confuse voters.

In feisty remarks, the candidates for vice president exchanged barbs over the economy.

Senator Edwards said many Americans are having significant financial problems.

"Millions of people have lost their jobs. Millions have fallen into poverty. Family incomes are down while the cost of everything is going up. Medical costs are the highest they have ever been over the last four years. We have this mess in Iraq," said Mr. Edwards. "Mr. Vice President, I don't think the country can take four more years of this kind of experience."

Mr. Cheney shot back that the economy is now rebounding and that millions of Americans have benefited from tax cuts sponsored by the Bush administration.

"The Kerry record on taxes is one basically of voting for a large number of tax increases -- 98 times in the United States Senate. There is a fundamental philosophical difference here between the president and myself who believe that we ought to let the American people keep more of what they earn and we ought to empower them to have more control over their own lives," said Mr. Cheney. "I think the Kerry-Edwards approach basically is to raise taxes and give government more control over the lives of individual citizens."

The debate was held in a gymnasium on the campus of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, an important state in this year's election.

Analysts say the vice presidential debate took on additional importance, as some recent polls show the race is tightening, while other surveys say it is now tied.

The next debate between President Bush and Senator Kerry is scheduled for Friday, October 8 and will feature a town hall format, where audience members will have the opportunity to question the candidates.