Because of the poor timing, Sunday's Democratic debate will be the least watched of the Democrat party-sponsored debates. And that's too bad, because while the debate was a dull affair with a few dumb questions, it amply illustrated the nuanced differences between the top candidates.
Barack Obama - Cumulative 2008 Debates Scoreboard
In every online poll, Barack Obama was judged the debate "winner," and I fully agree. With a caveat...
Said an after-debate participant about Obama in a Fox News forum conducted by pollster Frank Luntz, "I thought he was very relaxed and very honest and he seemed very open." Another observed, "... he continues to demonstrate that he's got a nuanced approach to the answers and he understands that they are not easy, and he is willing to look at all sides and involve that in his policy."
Bingo on both counts. Sen. Obama demonstrated a firm, mature grasp of the issues, and resisted the politico urge to speak in angry tones or rehearsed slogans. (OK... except for the cutesy comment that "to prepare for this debate, I rode in the bumper cars at the state fair." He got lots of Iowan laughs for the line, though, and that counts.)
Obama also actually answered the substantive questions... which is more than can be said for the other two top candidates. I thought he allayed over-hyped concerns about foreign policy differences between him and Sen. Clinton when he simply explained:
"I do think that there's a substantive difference between myself and Senator Clinton when it comes to meeting with our adversaries. I think that strong countries and strong presidents meet and talk with our adversaries. We shouldn't be afraid to do so.
"We've tried the other way. It didn't work.
"I think that, if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and we've exhausted all other options, we should take him out before he plans to kill another 3,000 Americans. I think that's common sense."
In short, Sen. Obama came across as the candidate above the fray, the candidate with the common sense answers, a smart, decent guy with whom anyone could share a cup of coffee. And that may just be what a Democrat needs to win the all-important Iowa caucus.
But... the caveat is that, once again, he refrained from attacking Sen. Clinton when he had the clear chance (see below), and frankly, when he should've attacked her. His timid wavering makes me wonder if he's tough enough for the job of president.
George Stephanopoulos (the question): "...'Democrats worry Clinton may hurt the rest of the ticket.' Are they right to be worried?"
Obama: blah blah blah...
GS : "But when you say that, are you saying that Senator Clinton is part of the failed politics of Washington, or not?"
Obama : blah blah blah...
GS (puzzled): "So the answer is yes?"
Obama (his unsatisfyingly indirect, double-negative final answer): "The answer is: I would not be running if I did not believe that I was the best person to do this."
If that sort of gutless double-speak won elections, John Kerry would be finishing his first term in the White House. Republicans Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney would make political mincemeat of such blather.
Obama should have clearly, quietly, calmly responded, "YES. Sen. Clinton has an electability problem. I do not share that problem, and I am a more electable Democratic candidate than Hillary Clinton for these reasons... " Period.
Hillary Clinton - Cumulative 2008 Debates Scoreboard
In the ABC News debate in Iowa, Sen. Hillary Clinton did nothing to either hurt or help her candidacy.
Without more courage or originality from her opponents, that might be enough for her to secure the party's 2008 nomination. But don't count on it...
A particpant in the Fox News after-debate forum observed, "... she was very outgoing and very in control, but her answers were wishy-washy." Another wistfully commented, "She looked very staged. She looked very cold and I was fairly disappointed coming in as a Hillary supporter. Im not saying that it changed my view, but it did disappoint me... "
My impression was that Sen. Clinton tried extra-hard to seem agreeable, and to appear acceptably "nice" yet professional... rarely an easy task for highly accomplished women. It didn't work.
Twice she cited full agreement on with Joe Biden. Once, she proclaimed about agricultural exports, "Well, I agree with everything John (Edwards) said... " And on supporting family farms, Sen. Clinton said "... we've got to do more, as Chris (Dodd) said."
She sidestepped directly answering the uncomfortable questions. And not once did she offer up one of her trademark pragmatic, fully-fleshed plans for rebuilding New Orleans, proving healthcare for uninsured Americans, bringing peace to the Middle East and so on.
On the positive side for the Clinton campaign, Hillary made no sound-bite bloopers or embarrassing gaffes. She took no risks, she made no memorable mistakes. And she uttered some pleasant quotables. ("What's important is what's happening in the lives of the American people." and "... we've got to have a real conversation with our teachers, our students and our parents... ")
Recent polls show Obama, Clinton and Edwards in a dead-heat to prevail the Iowa caucus vote, scheduled for January 14, 2008.
Treading water will NOT win the Iowa caucus for Sen. Clinton. And in recent decades, it's rare for a Democratic candidate to lose the Iowa caucus and still win the party's nomination for the presidency. Just ask Howard Dean...
John Edwards - Cumulative 2008 Debate Scoreboard
If Hillary Clinton played it safe, John Edwards played it soft and easy, with loads of semi-goofy charm.
A good example of "goofy" came when, after Obama and Clinton completed a discourse on U.S. foreign policies in the Middle East, Edwards smiled and chirped, "How about a little hope and optimism?"
To me, his cheery quip sounded more like peppy talk after losing a little league game, not a serious response to policy differences in regard to Al Qaida base camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
And I was stunned that despite being given only 8 minutes, 28 seconds to speak, John Edwards praised Hillary Clinton 3 times, rather than devote that time to his own agenda. ("Sen. Clinton did a terrific job in the 1990s trying to do something about health care... " and "Sen. Clinton, both as first lady and as a United States senator, has done a terrific job.")
And it made me wonder... is John Edwards gunning for a appointment in a future Clinton administration? Has he lost faith in his chances to capture the Democratic 2008 nomination?
I agree with New York Times blogger Katharine Seelye who sniffed that "Mr. Edwards didn't seem to be much of a factor here."
John Edwards was at this best on the issue of trade agreements, orating:
"... in an Edwards administration, the first question I will ask in every single trade agreement we're considering is: Is this good for middle-class working families in America? That would be the threshold question.
"And, second, we will have real labor and environmental standards in the text of the agreement, which I will enforce. We will have protections against currency manipulation, which the Chinese are engaged in right now.
"And then finally -- finally -- we will end these loopholes that actually create tax incentives for companies to leave America and take jobs somewhere else."
A heartbreakingly vulnerable moment came when, in reply to an inapproriate question about the power of prayer to stop tragedies, Edwards sadly, softly choked, "I prayed before my 16 year old son died; I prayed before Elizabeth was diagosed with cancer. I think there are some things that are beyond our control."
That intrusive question made me wonder anew why people run for public office... and feel grateful for all those, such as John Edwards, who do.
Bill Richardson - Cumulative 2008 Debates Scoreboard
Gov. Bill Richardson, who is polling about 11% of Iowa Democrats' support, delivered a Master Lesson in political debating, as he effectively and efficiently delivered his message in the mere 8 minutes he was allotted.
Richardson quipped the quotable line of the ABC-Iowa debate when he cleverly responded to a no-win question about whether Obama is too inexperienced for the White House, or Hillary is too experienced to "bring the country together":
"I think that Obama does represent change. Senator Clinton has experience. Change and experience: with me, you get both!
" ... You know, it's interesting. You talk about the dispute between the two senators over dictators that.. should we, should we not meet?
"I've met them already, most of them. All my life, I've been a diplomat, trying to bring people together."
Bill Richardson connected well with the Iowa audience, both on the Iraq War and on No Child Left Behind, in large part because he communicated his ideas simply, understandably, and with passion, and because he strongly differentiated his views with the other candidates. To the cheering crowd, he said:
"My plan is that, to end this war, we have to get all the troops out, all of them. Our kids are dying. Our troops have become targets."
On No Child Left Behind, he again orated to loud cheers:
"I also have a one-point plan, like I do on Iraq, on No Child Left Behind: Scrap it! It's a mess; it's a disaster."
Barack Obama, who stumbled over wordiness and awkward, nondescript phrasing, could learn a valuable lesson from Bill Richardson about succinctly conveying his message.
And I confess: I find it odd that Obama, Clinton and Edwards quibble over who among them has the strongest foreign policy credentials. Odd, because Bill Richardson's long record of foreign policy experience... and successes... easily eclipses all of them. Together.
Is it too late for Bill Richardson? Will his energetic, pragmatic words and deep, long track record catch on with caucus goers and primary voters?
Sadly, it might be too late. If true, that would be a shame.
The Other Four Democratic Candidates
The other 4 Democratic candidate are each polling support of 2% or less of Iowa Democrats, and barring extraordinary events, have no chance of winning either the Iowas caucus vote, or the Democratic party's 2008 nomination.
As they did in the AFL-CIO debate a week ago, Sen. Chris Dodd and Sen. Joe Biden spent an inordinate amount of time voicing agreement with Hillary Clinton. One could get the impression that the old guard of the Senate... Clinton, Biden, Dodd... are teaming together to smackdown Sen. Obama, the upstart who dares questions his seniors.
As John Edwards smartly said, "It's not shocking that people who have been in Washington a long time cirticize him when he comes along and expresses his view."
If there's any truth to that perception, I find it misguided. Senators Clinton, Dodd and Biden all voted in 2002 FOR the Iraq War. They, and their Senate colleagues in 2002, are just as responsible for the U.S. foreign policy mess as is the Bush-Cheney administration that they enabled. That they still enable.
As Dodd and Biden lavish support on Senator Clinton's positions, I wonder why they continue in the 2008 race at all?
(I also wonder if the Clinton campaign has offered to pay off their campaign debts if they drop out and endorse Hilllary? After all, that is precisely the arrangement the Clinton camp made with Gov. Tom Vilsack on March 26, 2007, a month after he dropped out of the 2008 race.)
Dodd and Biden both made good points in the ABC-Iowa debate, and had excellent moments. They're both outstanding, loyal Democratic senators of long-standing. Both presently chair powerful Senate committees: Sen. Biden the Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Dodd the Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs Committee.
Apparently, though, Democrats have decided that neither will be the party nominee for the 2008 presidential race.
Dennis Kucinich - Cumulative 2008 Debate Scoreboard
Dennis Kucinich was rightfully annoyed that he was allotted only 5 minutes to speak. Rep. Kucinich has a distinctly alternative approach to most issues, and Democrats deserve to be offered as many options as possible. Said he on Iraq:
"We can talk about George Bush driving a bus into a ditch, but let's not forget there was a Democratic Senate in charge that OK'ed the war. And those senators who are up on this stage helped to authorize that war and they have to take responsibility for that. Likewise, they have to take responsibility for funding the war. You say you're opposed to it, but you keep funding it. .
"... We cannot leave more troops there. We cannot privatize Iraq's oil. We cannot partition that country and expect there's going to be peace."
And Kucinich, who remembers living with his family in a car parked in the inner city, fiercely pledged:
"... as president, the American people will have someone who remembers where he came from and has the compassion in his heart to lift up everyone to make sure everyone has a chance. "
As for former Sen. Mike Gravel (see Mike Gravel - Cumulative 2008 Debate Scoreboard) , I don't know what midsguided liberal political correctness is causing the DNC to include a candidate with "no support registered," per moderator Stephanopoulos, but it's time for the charade to end.
Early on, Gravel's provocateur pose may have proven entertaining. Now, he only wastes valuable time meant for viable candidates.
And honestly, it's kind of sad to watch to a once-great legislator and Democratic hero rambling, obstructing and ruining his legacy.
The next Democratic party-sponsored debate is set for September 26, 2007 in New Hampshire , and will be hosted by NBC News/MSNBC. Hopefully, the field of candidates will have narrowed by that time.
(Photo Credits: Obama on August 17, 2007: Scott Olson/Getty Images; Clinton on August 19, 2007: Getty Images Pool; Edwards and Iowa Gov. Chet Culver on August 19, 2007: David Lienemann/Getty Images.; Richardson on June 19, 2007: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)