On The Trail

There They Go Again

In Phoenix, Democratic debate fatigue sets in.

PHOENIX—Well, this one went well until they let the voters take over. Before this debate—the fourth in five weeks among the Democratic presidential candidates—there was some sense that debate fatigue had begun to set in, at least among political junkies. If Slate’s Democratic Debate Drinking Game isn’t enough evidence for you, the Dean campaign distributed “D-E-A-N-O,” a bingo-style debate-watching game, to mock the candidates’ various rhetorical tics. Squares include the phrases “the American people,” “over 3 million (referring to jobs),” and “Lyndon LaRouche (from the audience).”

So, you understand why the Democratic National Committee and CNN thought it would be a good idea to mix things up by introducing a town-hall element to the debate. But the decision backfired. Once the questions were taken out of the hands of Judy Woodruff, Jeff Greenfield, and Candy Crowley, a debate that had been interesting careened out of control. During the debate’s first 55 minutes, Woodruff proved willing to interrupt the candidates in order to get them to answer her and the panelists’ questions (at least until Al Sharpton barked at her after a follow-up question, “You gonna take that out of my time?”), and Greenfield might have had the best line of the evening. After asking Dick Gephardt about the Democrats’ setbacks in state legislatures and in their number of registered voters nationwide, Gephardt said, “Jeff, I don’t see it as half-empty. I see it as half-full.” As surely as if the exchange had been scripted, Greenfield shot back, “Well, the Senate and the House are less than half-full.”

Granted, there was a reason beyond debate fatigue to allow undecided voters to ask their questions (my favorite: “And I’m wondering if you could comment on why you think there is so much hate for the United States right now and how you would use your position as president to uplift the world to a place that would take us out of that darkness.”). With apologies to New York, this was the first debate since the long-ago South Carolina face-off to take place in a state that’s actually going to play a significant role in the nominating process. Arizona holds its primary on Feb. 3, the first multi-state primary day, when primaries or caucuses will be held in Arizona, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. Up to now, there’s been an unnecessary amount of emphasis on South Carolina alone among those states, and the Arizona Democratic Party put out a pleading press release both before and after the event, titled, “Why ARIZONA is the BEST PLACE to come for the February 3rd Primary Story.” The gist: The Arizona race is competitive (unlike perhaps South Carolina and Missouri, because of favorite sons John Edwards and Dick Gephardt), and it’s got 10 electoral votes, second only to Missouri of the six Feb. 3 states.

Both Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman are staking their campaigns on their ability to win the Feb. 3 primaries, and Lieberman (who spent all day Wednesday campaigning in Arizona) goes after Clark for his inconsistent opposition to the Iraq war. Lieberman even suggests that he doesn’t respect Clark: “Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun—they were clear and consistent against the war. I was for it clearly and consistently, but I respect them for that clarity.” It’s the debate’s cleverest rhetorical strike: Lieberman praises Dean but manages to lump him with the race’s three fringe candidates, while simultaneously whacking Clark for lacking “a clarity of judgment and the courage to stick by the judgment you’ve made.” The intra-debate press releases from the campaigns are a good measure of which candidates are taken seriously, and my scorecard reads like this: One anti-Kerry release, two anti-Gephardt releases, five anti-Dean releases, and seven anti-Clark releases—but four of those anti-Clarks were put out by the Lieberman campaign. As he did in Albuquerque, Lieberman surprises by being the debate’s most willing and effective attacker. (Why wasn’t he this tough on Dick Cheney?) But I still find it difficult to believe that Democratic primary voters are going to rally behind the candidate who is for war in Iraq and against Hollywood.

John Edwards continues to be unable to speak outside of the range of his scripted talking points. When Greenfield asks him why he emphasizes the socioeconomic aspects of his childhood when “sons of wealth and privilege” like JFK and FDR were revered Democratic presidents (versus Nixon’s rise from “modest circumstances”), Edwards can’t really explain why he thinks his roots are important. “The biography in the abstract is not important,” Edwards says. “But what is important is when you lay out your ideas, your vision for the country, and you have lived it, every day of your life, from the time you grew up, through today, then the American people know that, and it gives you credibility on those ideas and that vision.  That’s why it’s important.” (Later, Sharpton bails Edwards out: “The reason is, I think it inspires young people to know that they can start somewhere in life with disadvantages and become what he’s become. And I think that that kind of intangible inspiration is good.  It has nothing to do with votes.  It has something to do with hope.”) Does Edwards’ Robo-Pol nature explain why his candidacy hasn’t caught on? Maybe, but our current president can’t stray from his script, and his repetitive message discipline wears thin, too, so it’s not necessarily a fatal flaw.

To me, though, the most interesting moment of the evening occurred backstage. The Dean campaign circulates a long release detailing how Gephardt was “instrumental” in Bush’s “miserable failure” in Iraq. Smack in the middle of it is a picture of Gephardt standing next to Trent Lott, President Bush, and Denny Hastert, just over a year ago as they announced the congressional war resolution. Yes, it’s a clever slap: “You think I stood with Newt Gingrich during our ‘darkest hour’? Look in the mirror, buddy.” But its real import is the subtext. More and more, Dean’s campaign hinges on winning Iowa, not just New Hampshire. He’s amassed a huge lead in the Granite State polls, and an Iowa victory could help him wipe Clark off the map before the game even begins. Which means increasingly, the guy that’s standing in the way of Dean’s presidential ambitions is Dick Gephardt, not John Kerry.