Today's Papers

Fighting for Survival

The New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsboxlead with yesterday’s Democratic debate in Ohio, where Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama clashed over a number of issues, including campaign tactics, Iraq, health care, and NAFTA. As opposed to the largely cordial encounter last week, the sharp words began almost as soon as the debate got started yesterday, although it did remain “generally civil,” as the WP points out. There was huge anticipation for the 20th, andmaybe final, Democratic debate of the primary season, which was seen as possibly the last chance for Clinton to stop Obama’s momentum before the contests in Ohio and Texas that have been described as must-win states. But, overall, nobody thinks Clinton was able to drastically change the race last night with her criticisms of Obama.

Whoever ends up winning the nomination will face a tough time against Sen. John McCain, notes the Los Angeles Times in its lead story. A new in-house nationwide poll shows 61 percent of voters view McCain favorably. McCain holds an advantages in several fronts as voters are more likely to rate him as the strongest leader who has “the right experience” and would be better at protecting the country and dealing with Iraq. On the economy, McCain gets higher marks than Obama but not Clinton. In a hypothetical matchup, McCain gets more support than either of the two Democratic contenders, leading Clinton by 6 percentage points and Obama by 2 points, which is within the poll’s margin of error. USA Todayleads with the as many as 3 million people in Florida who were left without power yesterday. A malfunction forced two nuclear reactors to shut down and led to a blackout that affected “one-sixth of Florida’s population.” Energy experts are now trying to figure out what happened. Although officials contend the nuclear reactors were meant to shut down in order to avoid more damage, they still don’t understand why the blackout was so expansive.

Everyone was expecting last night’s debate to be confrontational, and the NBC moderators seemed to do everything in their power to encourage the fighting from the beginning by starting out with clips that showed Clinton’s criticism of Obama’s campaign flyers. After some back-and-forth about tactics, where Obama countered her criticism by saying he has also been on the receiving end of attacks “and we haven’t whined about it,” the candidates launched into a 16-minute familiar argument over health care. The LAT emphasizes that when the discussion turned to trade, both candidates said they would threaten to opt out of NAFTA if Mexico and Canada didn’t agree to renegotiate the deal.

Clinton also directed criticism at the news media and asked why it is that she seems “to get the first question all the time?” In a move that the LAT describes as “a clear ploy for the sympathies of women voters,” Clinton then went on to reference a Saturday Night Live skit that portrayed reporters as being madly in love with Obama. “Maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow,” she said. (In a piece inside, the NYT says: “She has a point.” Clinton has been on the receiving end of the first question in all of her one-on-one debates with Obama.) A while later, almost seeming to prove her point, Tim Russert asked her to name the man who Russian President Vladimir Putin has named as his successor, Dmitry Medvedev. (She sort of got it right: “Medved … Medvedeva …”) The NYT’s Alessandra Stanley, who has the only quasi-critical look at the operational side of the debate, notes that the encounter “did look a bit like the SNL parody.”

Overall, TP is surprised there aren’t more critical stories about Russert’s performance yesterday, which included an almost surreal question where he asked the contenders to give a specific answer to an incredibly detailed hypothetical question that involved Iraqis kicking out all U.S. troops, a resurgence of al-Qaida, Iraq going “to hell,” and the possibility of a re-invasion of Iraq (but what if it’s raining?). When Clinton confronted Russert on the hypothetical nature of the question, he answered: “But this is reality.”

In an analysis piece, the LAT notes that while Obama “did not walk away unscathed from the debate, the damage Clinton inflicted was minor.” The NYT’s Adam Nagourney agrees, noting that “Obama had the advantage” last night and was helped along by Russert’s “aggressive questioning” of Clinton. The LAT goes on to say that both candidates “were tipped off balance by tough questions” from the moderators and mentions how Obama “stuttered a response” to Russert’s question about whether he would reject the support from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. After Russert found it necessary to remind viewers of Farrakhan’s opinion of Judaism, and some interjection from Clinton, Obama said he “would reject and denounce.” The LAT says that although this might not matter now, “his hesitancy could provide an opening for Republicans.”

The LAT’s poll shows Obama is beating Clinton 48 percent to 42 percent, although Clinton still holds a lead in states that haven’t voted yet. But “one of the most striking findings” of the poll is that when Democratic voters were asked whom they support now, regardless of what vote they may have already cast in an earlier primary or caucus, Obama leads by 20 percentage points.

The LAT and NYT both front the latest bleak news about the economy. New inflation figures reveal prices were up 7.4 percent compared with a year ago, which is the highest rate since 1981. Meanwhile, other new figures showed home prices fell 8.9 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, which is the steepest decline in 20 years. “Consumers are getting squeezed on all sides,” an economic analyst tells the LAT. The increases are largely being fueled by higher energy and food prices. The NYT focuses on how the increasing price of oil is “finally showing up at the pump,” and it “could not come at a worse time for the economy.” All this is adding up to the worst consumer confidence in five years, which, as the LAT points out, “risks making a sharp economic pullback a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The WP, LAT, and WSJ front the performance given by the New York Philharmonic in North Korea. The concert opened with the national anthems of both countries, and finished with a roaring standing ovation that went on for five minutes. Although no one thinks the one performance will automatically lead to better diplomatic relations, “it was an exceptional moment for two nations mired in six decades of mistrust, with political and economic policies in direct opposition,” notes the WSJ.

The most interesting parts of the dispatches from North Korea involve the reporters’ descriptions of what the WP calls “the undertow of strangeness, fakery and fear that infects life in this country.” For example, reporters, who always had to travel with “minders,” were taken to the Grand People’s Study House, where there appeared to be a grand theatrical scene going on with hundreds of people who had supposedly decided to attend classes there that day. “No one was waiting; no one came, and no one left,” notes the NYT. At one point, a librarian said the huge building had millions of foreign-language books, but when she pulled out some of them for the visitors to see, they were all about computers.

Move over, Obama Girl … Seems like the WP’s Tom Shales wants your job.