No Winners. No Losers

The first Democratic face-off shakes up nothing

In the cable television run-up to the first Democratic primary debate, no sports metaphor went unused: The night was the first game after spring training. It was the NBA playoffs. Obama was a Heisman Trophy winner and Hillary was a strong safety. I’m sure somewhere Parcheesi was mentioned. But after the debate was over, it was as if the game hadn’t been played: The standings were unchanged.

The top candidates committed no major gaffes and offered no soaring performances. Obama, Clinton and Edwards didn’t attack each other to draw blood as their forebears did in the first Democratic debate in 2004. The campaigns did not issue blanket rapid-response e-mails touting their candidate and knocking their opponents.

None of the top candidates wanted to take the first swing, said their advisers afterward in the spin room where they gathered to face the press swarm. (That tentativeness led to very mild spin; they mostly asked us what we thought.) Obama can’t attack because that would go against his core message that he wants to change politics. (Plus, he doesn’t need to attack; the momentum is with him.) Hillary can’t get feisty because her negatives are already high enough. So, the two front-runners were solicitous of each other. “As Hillary was saying,” said Obama. “I think that what Barack said is right,” said Hillary. Fortunately, there was no air kissing.

Edwards, who has shown he’ll take on the others, was also pretty quiet. He was given a chance to knock Hillary over her Iraq vote, and he only pressed her obliquely. He also made only a glancing dig at Obama as he answered a question about tax cuts: “Rhetoric’s not enough. Highfalutin’ language is not enough.”

This isn’t to say that nothing happened at the debate Thursday night in Orangeburg, S.C. Here are some observations:

Edwards emotes. The silliest question of the night got one of the best responses, which is why I’m still in favor of silly questions. Edwards turned a question about his $400 haircut into a story about his humble upbringings, in which he described having to leave a restaurant because his father, a mill worker who was in the audience, realized after looking at the menu that he couldn’t afford it. Edwards said he was prosperous now and that he was running for president to allow everyone a shot at the same success. Candidates are always trying to talk about their biography, but it looks stilted in the format of a debate. Edwards was able to do so, repeat his core rationale for his candidacy, and beat back the hypocrisy charge that his advisers knew was one of their big challenges for the night. (He almost blew it when asked who he considered his moral leader by pausing long enough to hear the crickets, which suggested he might not have one, but he rescued himself nicely.)

Kucinich for Obama. Obama did just fine, but he wasn’t the magical character who turns out massive adoring crowds at his rallies. It was hard to be very soaring given the format, where candidates were never given more than 60 seconds to talk. MSNBC, which hosted the debate, tried to keep the 90 minutes lively, requiring candidates sometimes to answer in 30 seconds or a single sentence. They were asked to name the one Supreme Court justice they admired, and raise their hands to answer questions like did they own a gun or if they believed there was “such a thing as a global war on terror?” (I thought the candidates might have to answer while hopping on one foot or answer in the form of a question.)

In this environment, Obama’s best moments came thanks to Dennis Kucinich, who twice forcefully made the case Obama was too polite to make. Kucinich attacked the senators who had voted to give Bush the authority to attack Iraq, arguing that it showed their lack of judgment. At the end, Kucinich took on Obama over the use of military force. The back and forth allowed Obama to show some passion and animation, which often can seem lacking in his analytical and distant answers. It also allowed him to show off his hawkish side as he insisted that there were some threats that required military force, which helped balance out a muddled answer he gave on the use of force after another 9/11-like attack.

Hillary the populist. In the spin room after the debate, the advisers from other campaigns suggested Hillary looked strident. I didn’t think so. She gave a forceful answer when asked how she would respond after a terrorist attack, but it wasn’t strident. “I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate,” she said. Her only answer that might give her political problems came at the end, when she railed against “corporate elites.” It sounded a little discordant and may have overshadowed the message she was trying to get across about the poor. I wonder how her many donors who work for, or run, corporations will respond to that kind of populist language.

She didn’t do anything to fix her big problem, which is improving her image as too divisive to get elected. The latest Gallup survey found that 52 percent of respondents have an unfavorable view of her. She never got a chance to connect with voters the way Edwards did and she didn’t confect such a moment. Asked about this problem afterwards, her chief strategist, Mark Penn, argued that Hillary is unpopular because she’s advocating change. “It’s the old thing that when you make an omelet, you’ve got to break a lot of eggs,” he said. “When you’re going to change things, not everyone is going to like what you say.” That’s an explanation, but it won’t improve those numbers.

Second tier still second. No one broke out of the back of the pack. Gov. Bill Richardson had the best shot. He’s telegenic, and he’s got a strong foreign policy résumé in a field where the top candidates are light on experience overseas. But he didn’t sell himself well. For a guy who talks about his humor in his new ad campaign, for much of the debate he looked like he had swallowed a bad plum. Sen. Joe Biden had a great moment when Brian Williams asked, with a long windup, if Biden had the discipline not to be a “gaffe machine” and exhibit “uncontrolled verbosity.” His response: “Yes.”

Give ‘em Hell, Gravel! Oddball candidates can steal a debate, and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel almost stole this one. “I got to tell you, after standing up with [the other Democratic candidates], some of these people frighten me—they frighten me,” he said of his competitors. He railed against his opponents, Democratic leaders in Washington, and sometimes what seemed to be nameless demons. “I was beginning to feel like a potted plant standing over here,” he said at one point. Wild Mike was a near-perfect synthesis of crank candidates of the past—Republican Maury Taylor, who showed in 1996 how entertaining a candidate could be when he didn’t give a damn, and Adm. James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992, who famously asked during a debate, “Who am I? Why am I here?” In a mirror of that famous question, Gravel asked moderator Brian Williams, during a careening tirade against defense spending: “Who are we afraid of? Who are you afraid of, Brian?  I’m not.” When the candidates were asked who owned a gun, Gravel was one of those who raised his hand. “I was worried that he meant he had one with him at the moment,” said a senior adviser to a top candidate.