Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"Democratic Debate: Winners and Losers"

The Fix (WaPo):
The Fix grew up a HUGE fan of professional wrestling. So, it was with a mixture of fascination and glee that we watched last night's Democratic presidential debate, which resembled nothing so much as an out and out brawl.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) spent the first hour of the debate fending off shots from her opponents and parrying pointed questions from the moderators. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) made good on his pledge to be more aggressive against Clinton, albeit it in the low-key manner that has come to be his trademark in this campaign. Former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), on the other hand, took it directly to Clinton -- challenging her at every turn and effectively ensuring that the stories coming out of the debate didn't focus solely on Clinton versus Obama.

Even Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.), Joe Biden (Del.) and Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.) got in their shots -- although this debate was designed (rightfully so, to our mind) to give Obama, Edwards and Clinton a chance to mix it up.

Below you'll find our winners and losers from last night's debate. We added a "tweener" category for this debate because several of the candidates had performances that didn't seem to fit into either the winner or loser side. As always, these ratings are subjective. Agree? Disagree? The comments section is open for business.

John Edwards: We've said it before and we'll say it again: Edwards continues to make the strongest case against Clinton of any candidate in the field. Time and again last night, Edwards one-upped Obama's hits on Clinton by using his courtroom skills to deliver devastating one-liners about the New York Senator and her record. On Iran: "Are we going to hear 'If only I knew then what I know now,'" Edwards asked. On electability: "[Republicans] may actually want to run against you." On change: "If people want the status quo, Senator Clinton is your candidate." Was Edwards too angry? Too confrontational? Maybe. But, the anti-Clinton crowd wants someone to stand up strongly against her. Edwards showed he was willing to do that last night.

"Sabre Rattling": Wow. The Fix lost count of how many times the candidates uttered this phrase last night in reference to the Bush Administration's policy toward Iran. Edwards and Obama used it to hit Clinton; Clinton used it to hit the Bush Administration. Sabres were being rattled EVERYWHERE.


Barack Obama: Obama promised more aggression and he delivered -- sort of. The Illinois Senator was clearly committed to drawing contrasts with Clinton last night, even though it still feels as though he is forcing it at times. (Our read on Obama: he is not someone who enjoys direct confrontation and is still learning the political necessity of the tactic.) Obama's best line of the night (and one of the debate's highlights) came after Clinton refused to offer a clear answer on releasing the correspondence between herself and her busband during their time in the White House. "I'm glad that Hillary [used] the phrase "turn the page" but this is an example of not turning the page," Obama said. "Part of what we have to do is to invite the American people to take part in their government again." That message -- Obama as change agent -- is a powerful one; as the campaign has worn on, Obama has honed it nicely. So why not make him a winner? At times Obama seemed to wander into wonky policy talk on issues, letting his professorial side come out a bit too much. The more Obama sounds like every one else on the stage, the less chance he has of convincing voters he can and will change the status quo.

Hillary Rodham Clinton: After the first hour of the debate, Clinton seemed nearly-certain to wind up in the winner's circle again. She had largely faced down a withering barrage of attacks from Obama and Edwards (notable exception: her non-answer on opening up the National Archives) and come out none the worse for wear. And then she slipped. In the debate's final minutes, Clinton got caught trying to be too cute by half on whether she supported Gov. Eliot Spitzer's (D-N.Y.) plan to offer drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. Sensing a rare opportunity, Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) jumped in to question Clinton and was followed in the piling on by Edwards and Obama who sought to cast Clinton's answer as typical of her tendency to offer the political rather than the honest answer. That the moment came at the close of the debate was a double edged sword for Clinton: on one hand, it left viewers with a sour taste in their mouth and may have colored her performance overall; on the other, it was nearly 11 p.m. by then and the viewership had probably declined somewhat significantly so less people saw the slip. Why not make Clinton a loser then? Because for the majority of the debate she acquitted herself well despite having the deck stacked heavily against her. In the first hour, nearly every question and response started and ended with Clinton. Might she have won points among women who saw a bunch of men going out of their way to gang up on her?

Bill Richardson: On a night when both Dodd and Biden had their moments, Richardson struggled. In every debate and every answer, it feels as though Richardson is trying to stuff 10 pounds of rhetoric into a five pound bag. Part of that is because he doesn't get as much time to address issues as the frontrunners. But, knowing he isn't likely to get as many opportunities, Richardson needs to have adjusted by now to take advantage of the chances he does get. Thinking back on the debate, it's hard to find a moment where Richardson distinguished himself -- with the possible exception of his defense of Clinton. Then, after the debate, Richardson seemed to side with the pro-UFO crowd in response to a joking question by MSNBC's Chris Matthews. Um, not good.

Lightning Rounds: For those who followed The Fix's live-blogging of the debate last night, you've already heard our rant against lightning rounds. While a great idea in theory (allow all of the candidates to sound off on an issue in a short period of time) these lightning rounds just don't work because there is no real penalty for a candidate going far over the allotted time in their answer. Our suggestion? If we are set on keeping lightining rounds, create a real penalty for candidates who don't follow the rules. Maybe the next round of questions skips them? Ok, that's never going to happen, but a boy can dream.

Late Night Debates: The Fix's campaign against debates that start at 9 pm or later continues. That is all.
Howie P.S.: The debates are only late, Chris, if you reside in the Beltway and its time zone. How come Chris only heard "Sabre Rattling"? Where was he for the "carrots and sticks"?

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