Debating All Weekend Long

While you vacation, the presidential candidates blab on stage.

Republican candidates. Click image to expand.
Republican candidates Tancredo, Thompson, Brownback, McCain, Giuliani, Romney, Huckabee, Paul, and Hunter

August is supposed to be the slow month in politics. The president disappears to his ranch and Congress shuts down for a month. Even the Iraqi parliament understands this. The presidential candidates, on the other hand, are running all over the place. Over a nine-day period at the start of the month, there will be three Democratic candidate forums, a Republican debate, and the influential Republican straw poll in Ames, Iowa.

This weekend the Democrats debated at the YearlyKos convention of liberal bloggers, and Republicans gave parallel speeches on a stage in Iowa. (Despite the best efforts of the moderators, the GOP candidates didn’t have much of a debate.) The blogosphere can be highly confrontational, but the audience of 1,500 members of the liberal blogging community was civil. The debate, a first and a testament to the power of the liberal blogs, was thoroughly conventional. The questions were about the influence of China, the direction of the Supreme Court, and Iraq. The questions about the deficit and improving homeland security could have been asked at the CPAC forum. There was rousing applause in support of the troops and fighting the war on terrorists.

At the Republican debate Sunday, ABC moderator George Stephanopoulos introduced each candidate and their standing in the latest Iowa poll as if to remind them that they were in a heated contest with one another, but—despite a brief spark at the outset—the Republicans spent most of their ammunition on the candidates in the other party, portraying the Democrats as reckless on foreign policy, poised to raise taxes and to socialize medicine. Rudy Giuliani continued to charge that the Democrats fail to talk about the threat from terrorism, though they do, and Duncan Hunter complained that Democratic candidates never praised the troops, though Sen. Chris Dodd had done it as recently as the day before at the YearlyKos convention.

GOP candidates who spend so much time attacking the other party are trying to show that they can stir the blood of Republicans depressed about their unpopular president, the current crop of candidates, and the general cloud that hangs over the party. The Democrats bashed President Bush repeatedly but barely talked about the men running for the GOP nomination. They are engaging with each other more than their GOP counterparts and their party is in a better psychological place. In the ABC poll of  Iowa caucus voters only 19 percent of likely Republican voters say they’re “very satisfied” with their choices in the presidential contest. On the Democratic side, 53 percent are “very satisfied.”

Here’s a brief review of how the top candidates did in each debate:

The Democrats

John Edwards: He is the favorite among DailyKos readers and bloggers, and he delivered for them. His populist message may or may not win him the nomination, but given the strategy he has chosen, he hit his marks. He was passionate, and he repeatedly pointed out how he would go further and fight harder than the other candidates to fundamentally change Washington. His sound bites will play well on YouTube and in conversations after the debate. His best tactical move was putting pressure on Hillary Clinton without looking shrill. He challenged the party, and other presidential candidates, to immediately refuse campaign donations from lobbyists. Since Clinton takes donations from lobbyists, this set up her most uncomfortable moment in the debate. (This is precisely the kind of move McCain needed to pull off in his debate but didn’t.)

Barack Obama: He continues to improve his debate performances, showing more vigor and passion. He was pointing his finger so much in his answers it looked like he was poking a tricky elevator button. He came alive when the debate turned to the influence of lobbyists. He challenged Clinton’s assertion that they don’t play a negative role in the political process. “The insurance and drug companies gave $1 billion over the last 10 years,” he said to applause that turned into a standing ovation. “Hillary, you were talking about your [health care] effort back in 1993, and you can’t tell me that money didn’t make a difference, and you can’t tell me that the money they are spending is just to contribute to the public interest.”

Hillary Clinton: She didn’t lose. That’s a win for her. Her responses were mostly just like the ones she has given at the other debates—thoughtful, reasoned, and brimming with the appearance of competence. She also did far better than we might have expected given that she was facing a crowd that has been hostile to her. But she had a bad moment when she defended taking money from lobbyists and insisted it was silly for anyone to think that political donations influence political behavior. This audience booed and chuckled, but the reaction in the room isn’t what’s important. The moment is portable. It can be used in an ad by one of her rivals, but also anyone making the case that she’s the establishment Washington candidate needs only to cite her defense of lobbyists. Secondly, her answer animated her rivals to talk about an issue they can get passionate about. It played into John Edwards’ strategy for the day and gave Obama his best moment of the afternoon.

Everyone else: Dennis Kucinich is not going to get the party’s nomination, but he is a sunny, forceful advocate for his views. So many long-shot candidates engage in ever-escalating acts of embarrassing performance art to get noticed. Kucinich does none of this. Sen. Biden did not participate in the debate, but Chris Dodd apparently drank his colleague’s Red Bull. Dodd was animated and for one moment appeared to even roar. After his rousing declaration in favor of taxpayer financing for campaigns he seemed to surprise himself a little at the stemwinder he’d given.

The Republicans

Mitt Romney: It worked out nicely for the former Massachusetts governor that the debate began with news that he’s at the top of the polls in Iowa. He showed why. He was commanding overall and fast on his feet when defending against accusations made by Sen. Sam Brownback about his former pro-choice stances—though he may have fudged the facts in his answer. He also peppered his performance with set-piece lines about support for the troops and the American family that make the eyes roll but which stir GOP audiences. He both distanced himself from President Bush and praised him without looking insincere. His most effective jab at Barack Obama’s foreign-policy positions topped the evening news wrap-up of the debate and will be at the top of all the cable networks sound-bite clips.

Rudy Giuliani: He should be considered the winner if for no other reason than he had the hardest external challenges. Fogged in Saturday night, he arrived in Iowa Sunday morning not long before he had to take the stage. He stuck to his script, successfully managing the social issues where he differs from the party base and taking every chance he could to talk about terrorism. He appeared at his most winning when talking about the bridge disaster in Minneapolis. He referred to his experience in New York and offered lots of crunchy facts, which not only reminded people of his track record but also highlighted his larger philosophical point about increasing government competence without hurting services.

Giuliani has a smartest-boy-in-the-class aspect not too different from the one that Republicans used to pound Al Gore. He loves to show off his smarts, dropping facts, boasting about reading the hundreds of pages in the immigration bill, and insisting that he’d not only read a book on taxation but had underlined it. But in an otherwise politically effective defense of tax cuts Sunday, he appears to have botched his facts. He claimed that when the capital gains rate was increased to 28 percent from 20 percent, revenues decreased by $45 billion. If he’s talking about the 1986 increase, they didn’t. Giuliani boasted, “You go back and check it,” but his campaign couldn’t find the supporting data. An aide says he may have misspoke, meaning instead to have said revenues decreased 44 percent. That’s closer to the truth but still distorts the case by cherry-picking the data.

John McCain: His poll numbers are falling and people wonder whether he’s really going to stay in the race. He gave forceful and solid answers, but he didn’t change the dynamic by taking on his rivals. Given his campaign’s other woes, this safe strategy seems to depend on an implosion by Romney or Giuliani who are both running pretty solid campaigns and who gave him no openings Sunday.

Everyone Else: Gov. Huckabee continues to give solid and winning answers, which might explain why he’s moving up in the polls in Iowa. The coming Iowa straw poll will likely get rid of the other also-rans whose performances in the debate Sunday only reminded us why they deserve that designation.