Little Clashes in New Hampshire

The Democrats spar in their second debate

The second Democratic presidential debate was held at the end of the hockey rink at St. Anselm college in Goffstown, N.H. The ice had been removed for the summer, but the boards surrounding the rink remained, making it an appropriate venue for the first serious bout of cross-checking among the presidential primary contenders. The rivals questioned one another’s judgment and honesty on the Iraq war and the fight against terrorism. No one lost any teeth, but at least the major candidates weren’t so awfully nice to one another the way they had been in their first debate five weeks ago.

The Democrats have now held two debates and for a second time Hurricane Katrina was uttered only in passing. The catastrophe and the issues of poverty and government competency it raised once animated discussions among Democrats, but not tonight. Nor was there discussion of other issues Democrats have talked about in the past like pensions, wages, and education. The candidates debated health care at some length, but Iraq and the war on terror dominated much of the evening.

Some observations about the individual candidates:

Top of the Hill: In the second Republican debate Rudy Giuliani deflected a question about his pro-choice position on abortion by bringing up Hillary Clinton. He argued Republicans should focus on her as the real threat, not get consumed by their intraparty fight. Tonight, Hillary returned the favor. During a discussion about her vote to authorize the Iraq war, the senator tried to pivot. “The differences among us are minor,” she said. “The differences between us and the Republicans are major. And I don’t want anybody in America to be confused.” She repeatedly asserted that George Bush and no one else was to blame for Iraq. (Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel disagreed; they said Democrats owned the war, too).

Clinton, like Giuliani, wasn’t just switching the subject but trying to behave like the leader of the party as if the general election were already under way. Good thing for her she was able to pull it off. She made almost no mistakes and looked in command. She rebutted John Edwards’ claim that the “war on terror” is just a bumper sticker, making a forceful case for why jihadists must be confronted. She didn’t exactly risk anything, but then she doesn’t have to. She was the front-runner coming in, and she still is.

Obama and Edwards fought but Hillary stayed above the fray. Afterward her aides said this was proof of her presidential temperament. Those lesser candidates had to squabble because they were scraping for second place—the one slot to be the Hillary alternative. If you look at the national polls you might buy that this is the dynamic of the race. The state polls show Clinton in a weaker position, though.

The one slip Hillary’s opponents will likely exploit, and which she’ll perhaps have to spend some time clarifying, is her assertion that since 9/11 “we are safer than we were, [though] not yet safe enough.” Most Democrats would argue that the Iraq war has made America less safe no matter what improvements have made domestically to deter future hijackings or plots to blow up JFK. When I asked two of Clinton’s aides afterward if she had misspoken or meant something else, they did not modify her remarks. Both the Obama and Edwards campaigns sought to take advantage of this. “Not only are we not safer,” said former Rep. David Bonior, John Edwards’ campaign manager. “We have more terrorists and fewer allies.”

Barack isback: Barack Obama had a strong night, especially compared to his lackluster first debate performance. When John Edwards challenged Obama’s leadership abilities by charging that Obama only meekly opposed the recent Iraq funding legislation, Obama threw an elbow. “The fact is, is that I opposed this war from the start,” he said looking coolly at Edwards, who voted to authorize the war. “So, you’re about four and a half years late on leadership on this issue.” The senator then threw another elbow, suggesting that Edwards shouldn’t politicize the war issue. It was such a deft performance you almost didn’t notice that Obama was himself politicizing the issue, albeit in his own high-minded way.

Later, Obama held his own in another exchange with Edwards over health-care policy. In time, the fact-checkers may find flaws in his arguments, but since Obama has been criticized—by Edwards among others—for lacking substance, his forceful case for his own plan helped to rebut the weightlessness charge.

And he didn’t stop there. Obama was telling lots of people what to do. He took on CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer, who asked the candidates to raise their hands to signify whether they thought English should be the official language in America. “This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us,” said Obama, interrupting the flow of the debate. In the first debate, he seemed tentative when asked how he would respond to a hypothetical terrorist attack. Not tonight. He was clear that he’d assassinate Osama Bin Laden if given the chance, even if it meant killing innocent civilians.

Edwards hangs in: John Edwards was the candidate causing all the trouble. He drew distinctions with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on Iraq where he accused them of “standing quiet” during the recent debate over war funding. He essentially said Hillary was dishonest for not admitting her original vote to support the war was a mistake. On health care, he claimed Obama’s plan did not provide true universal coverage and would leave 15 million Americans uninsured. Throughout the evening he continued to cement his position on the left-most flank among the top three Democratic candidates. All the candidates are returning to the fund-raising circuit after the debate, where everyone but Hillary and Obama will have to make the case that they are still viable. Edwards, who lacks Clinton’s mammoth organization or Obama’s star power, helped himself make that case by showing he can take risks and can be a forceful advocate for liberal positions who is willing to take on the others.

Smokin’ Joe: The challenge for second-tier candidates is how to break out while getting fewer questions and everyone’s focusing on the front-runners. Sen. Christopher Dodd gave several sober and serious answers but the big noise from the back of the pack came from Joe Biden. He demonstrated a command of the facts on everything from when Iran will run out of domestic crude oil to the casualty rates from explosive devices in Iraq. He was passionate and direct (his occasionally meandering ways were a topic of a question in the first debate). When he talked about America using its moral force to stop the genocide in Darfur, he pointed downward so forcefully it was like he was trying to break the stage with his index finger. “By the time all these guys talk, 50,000 more people are going to be dead. They’re going to be dead,” he said advocating for a militarily enforced no-fly zone. “That’s our moral authority, exercise it!”

Biden seems to have been inspired by his fight with liberal anti-war activists over his vote in support of continued funding for the Iraq war. It’s not a popular position with party activists and won’t help him break into the top tier, but it has animated him. Debates are an opportunity for candidates to show conviction and communicate that they have deeply held beliefs, and he did both.