The Democratic Steeplechase: The First Debate

The first major debate between the Democratic presidential candidates will take place on Thursday at South Carolina State University on Thursday. SC State is a predominantly Black university located in Orangeburg, South Carolina, about a 40 minute drive southeast from Columbia. Orangeburg is also located squarely in Congressman Jim Clyburn's 6th Congressional District, a majority minority district.

I was fortunate enough to snag a few tickets for the debate, although I won't be able to sit in the same auditorium as the actual politicians. (Those tickets are long gone.) However, I will be able to watch the debate at a site nearby and will attend a post-debate party where the candidates will drop by and give a few speeches. This is a great chance to network, get campaign literature, ask the candidates directly where they stand on the issues, and get a feel for how comfortable they are discussing certain issues. I'll be working the crowd to the best of my ability and will post my experiences here later.

Anyway, this debate is huge. It will be nationally televised, so this gives every candidate a chance to reach more voters now than ever before. People who have never heard of Dennis Kucinich or Chris Dodd will get a chance to see them on stage. People who know of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may have their opinions of them change because they don't actually know them. This is a huge opportunity for candidates to seize momentum. It's also an event that can winnow the field in the event that a candidate makes a major gaffe or performs so dismally that he (or she) has no choice but to see the writing on the wall.

So let's analyze the stakes here:

Hillary Clinton

Why this debate matters: Hillary Clinton's campaign has been worried for the past few weeks because the aura of inevitability surrounding her campaign has all but dissipated. The 800-pound gorilla has suddenly been whittled down to a 400-pound gorilla. I still view her as the front-runner, but she clearly has the most to lose here. Everybody knows who she is and everybody has an opinion of her, be it positive or negative. Clinton's problem is that she can't generate new support as easily as she can generate defectors from her campaign. This debate offers her the opportunity to present herself as more likable than the voters "remember."

What she should say: Clinton's greatest asset is her husband and the prosperity that characterized his presidency. George W. Bush, the current president, is also an asset to her because she can use him as an effective foil. Clinton should try to present herself as a steady hand that can be tough on our nation's enemies without alienating our allies and neglecting our wellbeing at home.

What she should not say: Clinton should not say too much about Iraq because she has boxed herself into a rhetorical corner thanks to her war vote and her non-apologies for that vote. She is clearly trying to position herself as a centrist on this issue for the general election, but this won't work for the primaries. Any further nuanced "I take responsibility for my vote" type expressions will only feed into the negative caricatures that have developed about her--a cold, calculating, politically driven woman with no core beliefs. Worse yet, it also makes her look stubborn, just like the unpopular president.

Enemies on stage: Clinton has a big scarlet X on her forehead. Everybody is waiting for her to stumble so they can pounce and steal some of the oxygen she has been sucking up. Obama has become her (media-annointed) primary rival, so he is licking his chops. Anything negative that she says will make him look better by comparison. Edwards is hoping that she gets sandbagged by an Iraq-related question because even though he also voted for the war, he has since apologized for it. The second-tier candidates are waiting in the wings, ready to beam her over the head with the "inexperience" weapon. Bill Richardson in particular is a threat to Clinton because he can attack her as lacking direct executive experience even though her husband was president.

Question she hopes never comes up: "During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush campaigned as 'a uniter, not a divider.' Due to the politicization of the government under his presidency, our nation has become more polarized than ever. Your husband's presidency was similarly polarizing because of all the investigations and transgressions that took place then. In light of this, how do you defend your candidacy as a chance to bring this nation together?" Obama and Edwards would be quite pleased with their chances if this question popped up.

Barack Obama

Why this debate matters: This debate offers Obama the opportunity to close the sale with Black voters as well as with voters who still have reservations about his lack of experience. This also affords him the opportunity to get his name out because there's still a large chunk of the electorate that doesn't even know who he is. These voters who don't know anything about Obama are likely experience Stage 1 of "Obamamania," which I would characterize as swooning over his "freshness" and the "novelty" of his campaign. Stage 2 of Obamamania consists of being hopeful for his candidacy, but having their enthusiasm tempered by those nagging questions about his lack of experience. These voters should be considered soft supporters who may be more inclined to have a second secret desired candidate in this race. Aside from Hillary Clinton, Obama has the most to lose from a poor showing in this debate.

What he should say: Obama should speak of his international upbringing and his multi-ethnic family. He should then use this as a way to segue into a discussion about repairing our image abroad and making the United States a nation that is respected by others. This approach allows him to combine hope and competence, thus satisfying Obamamaniacs in Stages 1 and 2. It would also allow him to define himself as a new type of candidate that can bring new types of voters into the political discussion.

What he should not say: Obama should avoid saying anything that makes him sound to much like a civil rights era Black politician. While a lot of Black voters might respond to that, the larger White electorate might think of him as a younger Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson and be put off by it. I don't think Blacks are expecting him to rail against racism like they'd expect Sharpton to do, but I do think they are expecting him to show at least a modicum of outrage over such injustices. I think Black voters will give him a pass if he doesn't become a champion of "their" issues so long as he at least conveys to them that he will fight for them.

Enemies on stage: John Edwards probably goes to bed cursing Obama's campaign each night. ("How could this upstart be getting more media attention than me, a guy who ran on the Democratic ticket in 2004?") Edwards has been taking subtle digs at Obama by saying "he was too inexperienced as a candidate in 2004, but that he's much more experienced and knowledgeable now." Look for Edwards to make a similar attack in the debate. The second tier candidates will pile on from the "experience" angle as well. They will also say that the Democrats need a leader, not a rock star. Clinton will do her best to avoid engaging Obama because she doesn't want people to think she's worried about his strength.

Question he hopes never comes up: "Why did it take you five days to respond to the Don Imus controversy? Does it really take that long to identify offensive remarks as offensive?" Hillary Clinton would be beaming with joy if this question popped up because while Obama has delivered speeches to the Black community, her husband has actually delivered for them.

John Edwards

Why this debate matters: John Edwards has been running half a step behind Obama and Clinton, but half a step ahead of the second-tier candidates. Edwards' challenge is to remind voters that he is the populist candidate who is not afraid to bring issues of poverty, fairness, and decent wages to the forefront of the discussion. He also has to shake the label of being "John Kerry's running mate" because that reminds voters of the unpopular Kerry and the fact that Edwards played second fiddle to a losing candidate. Even though he is perhaps even more politically inexperienced than Obama (given Obama's tenure as a state senator), Obama is receiving the brunt of the criticism about his inexperience. This gives Edwards the chance to convey himself as more of an intellectual and political heavyweight than voters remember.

What he should say: George Bush's failures could be manipulated by Edwards in particular. Edwards should remind voters of the devastation along the Gulf Coast caused by Hurricane Katrina and how Bush has "forgotten about them." He could also make an appeal to Southern voters (particularly those in North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, and maybe Louisiana) that he understands "their (Southern) issues" and how the Republican Party (and its business wing) may be taking them and their votes for granted. This message may resonate with economically downtrodden voters of all races in the rural South. Class, not race, is the key to Edwards' success.

What he should not say: Edwards can't bring up Obama's inexperience because it would remind voters of his own inexperience, despite his claims that he is "more experienced" now. Attacking Obama also strengthens Obama's message of hope while undermining Edwards' similar message of optimism and fairness. He has no choice but to let Obama implode with regards to the experience question, although Edwards may become collateral damage by nature because on this issue, they are one and the same.

Enemies on stage: Bill Richardson is the only other major Democratic candidate that hails from a red state. Look for Richardson to "out red-state" Edwards when talking about the government's role in people's lives. Also, Edwards is in direct competition with Obama for voters responding to messages of optimism and change.

Question he hopes never comes up: "You have said that reducing the deficit is not one of your priorities. How do you plan to pay for all the initiatives you propose? What kind of message do you think that sends the economically disadvantaged voters you appeal to who don't have the luxury of spending money they don't have?"

Bill Richardson

Why this debate matters: Of all the second tier candidates, Bill Richardson is the best positioned to break into the top tier. His resume is easily the most comprehensive in terms of the depth and breadth of his experience. This debate gives him the opportunity to introduce himself and his experience to voters who may think there are only three candidates in the race or voters who are dissatisfied with the "top three" candidates. Voters in Nevada and other Western states will listen to Richardson's message closely because he is the only candidate to hail from that part of the country, thus making him uniquely familiar with issues important to them. The growing Latino population may also be energized by his candidacy. Democrats who desperately want to avoid nominating yet another loser may respond quite favorably to Richardson's biography. This free media time offers him the chance to make the sale to a whole lot of people.

What he should say: He can neutralize Obama and Edwards simultaneously by focusing on his experience alone. If he can convey that rock stars and amateurs are the last things this country needs in these serious times because Democrats must appear tough on defense and able to stand toe to toe with our enemies, that will make a lot of people take notice. He can also score a major blow on Clinton by focusing on his own executive experience as governor and contrast that with her experience as an executive observer when her husband was president. He should also explain how he can appeal to voters in areas where Democrats have not been particularly competitive until recently, the West. George Bush can be used as an effective foil as well, thus allowing him to position himself well for the general election, should he win the nomination. His trips to Darfur and North Korea make him appear like a statesman in the mold that many voters wish Bush was. Richardson could also score rave reviews by offering responses to some questions in both English and Spanish.

What he should not say: Richardson should avoid saying anything condescending to Obama, Clinton, or Edwards even if they are less qualified than him because he has little margin for error and cannot afford to have his unfavorability ratings spike. Richardson cannot win over Obama's voters with a message of perceived nastiness. Statesmanship may trump optimism and inexperience, but knowledge and callousness may not. Basically, he has to let his resume and accomplishments do his dirty work for him, rather than his attacks.

Enemies on stage: Edwards is not a threat to Richardson. However, Clinton and Obama are. Richardson cannot break through until one of those candidates stumbles. Obama's campaign is hoping that Richardson does not siphon off their supporters because Richardson can position himself as an Obama who doesn't need on the job training. Clinton's campaign machine may also be armed with unflattering information about Richardson regarding his tenure as United Nations Ambassador or Energy Secretary, but don't look for her to attack Richardson for two reasons: 1) Obama is her main target, and 2) going negative is the last thing Clinton wants to do because it will reinforce her own negatives.

Question he hopes never comes up: "As a child of a Mexican mother and an American father, how does the debate over illegal immigration impact you?" This question would not really sabotage him for the Democratic primary, but it could really hamstring him in the general election because of fierce conservative opposition to it.

Chris Dodd

Why this debate matters: Like Richardson, Dodd has an impressive resume and is largely unknown to most voters outside of the wonks who study the Senate. Dodd has the opportunity to present himself as the steady veteran in the race, which should provide comfort to soft Obama and Edwards supporters who lament their lack of experience.

What he should say: Dodd's best ally is his experience, which allows him to attack George Bush, Barack Obama, and John Edwards easily and effectively. His decades of experience contrast nicely with his rivals'. He should also use his experience as the Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee to talk about his understanding of the world economy and the impact of poverty and trade. These are probably not the issues he wants to focus on, but they are likely the best ones available to him at present because he can credibly discuss them. He should repeat his mantra, "Give me a chance" as often as he can because it appeals directly to voters who feel dissatisfied with Clinton, Obama, and Edwards and makes him appear humble, as opposed to a "yet another know-it-all senator."

What he should not say: At this stage, what Dodd says is not as important as how he says it. Dodd should be most concerned with lapsing into "Senatespeak," which turns off the average voter who does not follow politics regularly. This may put him at a disadvantage because of his obvious intelligence. Unfortunately, he cannot risk being portrayed as a cerebral John Kerry or brainiac Al Gore because that will alarm Democratic voters who want to nominate a winner for 2008. Thus, he may have to speak in more general terms than he may be used to speaking for the sake of accommodation.

Enemies on stage: Bill Richardson is Dodd's primary threat because they both want to wear the mantle of being the "knowledgeable veteran," but Richardson is better positioned. Dodd can't really attack Richardson because Richardson's experience is comparable to his own, so he'll have to find a way around this. Talking about his Senate experience might not be the best way to do this. Because of Dodd's weak performance in most polls, he needs a lot of the other candidates to beat up on each other enough first to make his "give me a chance" pleas resonate.

Question he hopes never comes up: "How would you characterize Joe Lieberman's performance in the Senate since the last election?" Liberal Democrats hate Joe Lieberman and will withdraw their support for Dodd if he is seen as being cozy with his "traitorous" home-state "Republican-lite" senator. The Lieberman-Lamont race is the last headache he wants to deal with right now. If Liberal Democrats withdraw their support, how will he survive?

Joe Biden

Why this debate matters: Of the 8 declared candidates, Joe Biden is running 6th in most polls and analyses I've seen so far. His name recognition is higher than that of Dodd's, but for all the wrong reasons. The media seem to have tired of him and he has not done himself many favors after the "articulate" dustup that stepped all over his own campaign rollout. This debate matters to Biden because it will give him an opportunity for a "fresh start." He is obviously an intelligent man with a ton of relevant experience. This debate gives him the chance to rehabilitate his image far more effectively than any press release or one-on-one media interview.

What he should say: George Bush's incompetence and the problems in Iraq are Biden's best friends. His idea of partitioning Iraq into three distinct semi-autonomous regions is worthy of much more exploration and conveys to voters that he has an active interest in and understanding of the complexities of international affairs. Anything that portrays Biden as a serious, cerebral, thoughtful candidate is something he should consider saying. Focusing heavily on foreign policy issues should work to his advantage, as it will allow him to highlight his experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

What he should not say: Biden has to avoid doing anything that will further inflame the stereotype of him as being a gaffe-prone, washed up senator. First of all, he should avoid trying to be funny because that's how he usually gets himself into trouble. Displaying a serious side to match serious times might be an effective approach for him. He should also avoid lapsing into Senatespeak, which includes being long-winded. (Being long-winded is another negative caricature that has developed for Biden.) Lastly, Biden should not criticize the Democratic candidates who are pushing for a troop withdrawal date from Iraq. Even though Biden's partitioning approach has some merit, his political enemies are not those in the withdrawal camp. As long as he focuses on how his Iraq approach is "outside the box," it allows him to stand alone and cerebral while the "withdrawal" and "redeployment" candidates fight with each other (and with the Republicans) over which date to adopt.

Enemies on stage: Simply put, Joe Biden's biggest enemy is himself. He cannot afford another self-inflicted political wound. Do not look for the other candidates to attack Biden. Surely they are betting on him to sabotage himself. Biden's challenge is to appear credible. He doesn't have to take over Obama's position as the momentum candidate, but he does have to give voters a reason why they should at least consider giving his campaign a second look.

Question he hopes never comes up: "When shooting from the hip, you have had a tendency to say some controversial things that have sandbagged your campaign. What assurances can you give us that you won't say something similar to our nation's allies, rivals, and enemies if you were president?" This question sums up Biden's problems in a nutshell. If he can't sufficiently answer this question, his candidacy is doomed.

Dennis Kucinich

Why this debate matters: At this point, Kucinich is not a credible candidate. Perhaps it is possible for him to become a liberal kingmaker regarding withdrawing from Iraq, but it's tough to see voters taking him seriously regarding anything else.

What he should say: If he can tap into the anger among anti-war Democrats, maybe he can generate some buzz about his campaign.

What he should not say: Unfortunately for Kucinich, for his own political survival and to avoid becoming a Democratic punch line, he should avoid attacking the Democratic credentials of his rivals. He should also avoid mentioning the Green Party because he'd be ostracized for sure (a la Ralph Nader) even if his liberal positions put him more in line with that party instead of the Democratic Party.

Enemies on stage: If a tree falls in a forest and no one's there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Question he hopes never comes up: "If the Iraq War didn't exist, what would be the rationale behind your campaign?"

Mike Gravel

Why this debate matters: This debate only matters for Gravel because it gives him something to put in his personal scrapbook.

What he should say: It doesn't really matter what Gravel says because nobody's going to listen to him anyway.

What he should not say: He should not criticize another candidate or the moderator for mispronouncing his last name.

Enemies on stage: In the world of the Democrats seeking the presidential nomination, Gravel is just a squirrel trying to get a nut.

Question he hopes never comes up: "Why are you here?"

3 comment(s):

Reginald Harrison Williams said...


.....this is masterful.

I'm using this as my brochure for the Democratic Primaries.

NVB said...

Wow. This was some analysis. Spot-on, I think. Nicely done.

Steve Johnson said...

I agree with what everyone's said, that an awesome analysis. The debates are one of my favorite parts of the nominating process, so I ate those words up.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.