The question going into Tuesday night’s debate was whether John Edwards or Barack Obama would really take on Hillary Clinton. They both did, but if Hillary Clinton was harmed politically, it was her own doing. Obama and Edwards consistently raised questions about her character and forthrightness, and then she gave answers that helped them make their case. Much of the night she effectively deflected attacks—often refusing to engage her opponents and using the GOP candidates and George Bush as her foil—but on questions about Social Security, access to her records as first lady, and tax increases, she was evasive and indecisive.
The Clinton answer everyone will focus on came at the end of the debate. She was asked about New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to offer driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Clinton tried to demonstrate empathy for her governor’s predicament but duck specifically endorsing his position, as she had in a previous newspaper interview. She opened herself up on two fronts: Her answer was unclear in a way that can live on in video, and it provided Republicans with a possibly useful weapon against her on an issue that fires up the GOP base. Obama and Edwards jumped on her answer as proof of the kind of double talk they’d been accusing her of all night. Whether the moment really hurts Clinton with supporters depends on whether it gets into the cable news cycle. A previous misstep in an August debate where she defended lobbyists didn’t hurt her as much as it seemed it might at the time.
The winner of the debate was Joe Biden, if we’re grading on who seemed competent, rather than who positioned and attacked the most effectively. He had a command of the facts, he cuffed Rudy Giuliani for his lack of foreign-policy experience, and even told jokes that worked. When Obama and Edwards attacked Clinton for voting to label Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, their arguments were full of rhetoric and political calculation. Biden just put it plainly, noting the effect of the vote on oil prices and the broader unrest in the Middle East. Later, he once again looked like the adult when he talked about the threat from Iran. (The Giuliani campaign overreacted to Biden in a form of press release rarely seen—the extended barroom heckle—that only ensured Biden’s relevance.)
If you want a sense of where the political dynamic of the race stands right now, watch the YouTube clip of the moment in the debate that came at the end of the first hour. Clinton was asked about whether she’d expedite the release of her records from her husband’s term, and she gave an unsatisfying and frustrating answer about the slow archival process. (It made you feel like you were suddenly stuck at the DMV window.) Obama seized the moment to continue his assault on her candor. Edwards, who I figured would come in with merely a me-too response, picked up on the critique and added value. A version of this exchange will be going on in press releases, on debate stages, and across Iowa for the 64 days until the caucuses on Jan. 3.
Obama and Edwards also performed their compulsory routines effectively. Obama offered soaring rhetoric about breaking out of the politics of fear and the promise of America when asked about possible attacks on his skin color or intimations that he’s a Muslim. Edwards’ attacks on the culture of corruption in Washington had none of the stretched insistence that makes him sometimes sound like a candidate in the back of the pack trying to get noticed.
Bill Richardson helped himself, too. If Hillary Clinton becomes president, he might have his pick of Cabinet posts. He was the only one on the stage who defended her. “I’m hearing this holier-than-thou attitude toward Sen. Clinton, and it’s getting pretty close to personal attacks,” he said, referring to Barack Obama and John Edwards. After the two-hour marathon was over, Richardson was the first to walk over to Clinton. After the beating she took, I thought he might hand her an ice pack.