Ballot Box

The Manchester Debate

Good grades for the Democrats in New Hampshire.

Thursday night, the Democratic presidential candidates met in Manchester, N.H., for their final debate before the New Hampshire primary. Here’s a scorecard on each of the top five candidates.

John Kerry chose the best week to deliver his best performance. Kerry usually looks stuffy and evasive. Tonight he was plain-spoken and decisive. He started off a bit wobbly but soon relaxed and began mixing crisp language with fluid gestures. His answers were concise and coherent. He even managed to express his views on the Iraq war as one position instead of two.

The debate’s panelists offered Kerry a generous series of hanging sliders. A question about the Vietnam medals he had thrown away during a 1971 protest allowed him to remind viewers of his heroic service in the war. Kerry later added a two-fer: “I fought with John McCain to make peace in Vietnam.” A question about Republican tactics against Kerry allowed him to outline his electability strategy. Kerry indicated that he would run as a veteran, former prosecutor, hunter, and supporter of welfare reform.

Kerry’s most surprising line of the night was, “I’m the only other candidate, besides Gov. Dean, who is outside of the [campaign spending] caps. If I win the nomination, I’ll have the ability to raise an extraordinary amount of money and answer [the Republicans] back.” That’s true and important. But by advertising it, Kerry risks drawing attention to his extravagant wealth and his circumvention of campaign reform, creating an impression that he’s trying to buy the nomination.

Howard Dean presented the right demeanor to reassure voters disturbed by his caucus-night speech in Iowa. He was calm and steady and kept his voice at a low pitch, mostly due to a cold. (All the candidates except Dennis Kucinich looked sick. Maybe they should eat more vegetables.) Dean mustered some self-deprecating humor and overdue humility (“I’m not a perfect person”), but his latest damage-control line—that he leads with his “heart,” not his “head”—may exacerbate his problem. While Dean’s hard-core supporters may admire his heart, what’s most likely to endear him to moderate voters is his head—”social justice tempered by being a fiscal conservative,” as he put it tonight. If moderates conclude that Dean’s passion overrides his judgment, he’s done.

Dean’s answers to two questions were particularly troublesome. Asked about values, he began his answer with “Let’s talk first about money” and never got around to addressing moral issues other than guns and race relations. On taxes, Dean locked himself into the Mondale/Babbitt position, insisting that his programs couldn’t be funded “without repealing every dime of the Bush tax cuts.” Dean twice asserted that under Bush, “there was no middle-class tax cut.” I understand Dean’s argument that tuitions and property taxes went up as a result of Bush’s tax cuts. But after weeks of tolerating Dean’s “There was no middle-class tax cut” line, I can no longer honestly call it anything but a lie. There certainly was a middle-class tax cut, and Dean’s denial of this, through creative redefinition, is simply Orwellian.

John Edwards, too, delivered the requisite performance. For the first time, he seemed completely presidential. While Kerry looked reassuringly young, Edwards managed to look reassuringly old, partly by tilting his head down and frowning a bit to accentuate the wrinkles in his forehead and the sag of his jowls. Edwards has finally rid himself of the jury-stroking slickness that made his early debate performances reek of salesmanship. In this debate, he was all business and no bull. Pressed about his vote against Bush’s $87 billion budget request for Iraq, Edwards met the question with a buzzsaw and shredded it.

Edwards botched a question about the Defense of Marriage Act, characterizing it as an assault on states’ rights when in fact it was the opposite. But he aced a question about the Muslim world, arguing that the United States should cultivate relationships with the people of those countries, not just “with the Saudi Royals, with President Musharraf, with President Karzai.” When asked whether he was seeking the presidency too early in his career, Edwards hit the pitch out of the park. “Thirty-two percent of Iowans decided it was not too early,” he observed to loud applause.

For some reason, the panel of questioners kept pounding Edwards with questions about gay marriage. Finally, Edwards turned the tables and asked them why there were no questions about working-class poverty. “Instead of talking about ourselves,” he asked, “why don’t we talk about the voters and things that affect their lives?” If any moment in the debate earned Edwards a bump in the polls, that was it.

Wesley Clark did a good job, for the most part, of keeping his cool. He smiled and laughed at barbed questions that used to set him off. He raised his voice indignantly just once, when he was asked about his recent assurance that he would prevent further terrorist incidents. Clark again accused Bush of failing to do what he could have done to prevent 9/11—a charge that in my view makes Clark look more irresponsible than Bush. Clark also defended Michael Moore, the left-wing movie-maker who recently, in Clark’s presence, called Bush a military deserter. In addition, Clark praised George McGovern and suggested that the American Civil Liberties Union should have been invited to screen new surveillance technology. McGovern, Moore, the ACLU—that’s a dangerous lineup even for a general.

Joe Lieberman was, as usual, a maddening combination of backbone and obsequious comedy. He began with a forceful case for his electability and distinguished himself as the only “unwavering” supporter of the Iraq war. He delivered beautiful tributes to the sacrifices of American soldiers and the sanctity of the environment. He accused the Bush administration of “desecrating the earth that God has created” and giving “a bad name to a just war.” But when a panelist asked Lieberman about his past support of legislation that might have threatened New Hampshire’s primacy in the nomination process, Lieberman crawled out of his spider hole with his hands in the air. “I’ve gotten older and wiser,” Lieberman pleaded, only half-jokingly. “I will pledge to the death to protect the New Hampshire primary, so help me God.”

Invoking the Lord’s name for comic effect in a local pander? I think there’s something in the Bible about that.