10/29/2007

Before the Pennsylvania Debate (D)

All the Democratic candidates (sans Mike Gravel) will participate in their next debate tomorrow evening at 9:00 in Philadelphia. The debate will be broadcast on MSNBC and will be co-moderated by Brian Williams and Tim Russert. Brian Williams moderated the very first debate held in Orangeburg, South Carolina, so this debate serves as a bit of a homecoming of sorts.

The link I just provided was to the debate preview I had written in April in which I assessed each candidate's positioning, rivals, weaknesses, and ways they could make their path to the nomination a bit less bumpy. That was six months ago, and it is now the end of October. We are no longer in the preseason, as the Iowa caucuses are set for January 3, which is in just a little over two months. The race has taken on numerous storylines since this spring and several facts have been learned. Here's where things stand now:

1. Iraq's importance to Democratic voters is not as important as the media and pundits are making it out to be. This is not to say that Iraq is not a big deal because it obviously is. But think about this. Barack Obama has stated numerous times how "he was against this war from the very beginning." Voters also know that John Edwards has apologized for his war vote and said he was "wrong." And Democratic voters know that Hillary Clinton refuses to apologize for the war she voted to authorize. She also won't make any guarantees about withdrawing troops by a certain date even though timetables for withdrawal are considerably more popular among Democrats than Republicans. So in some regards, Clinton's Iraq policy sounds like a continuation of Bush's Iraq policy. And yet, Hillary Clinton's support in the polls among Democratic voters continues to rise. But if Iraq were such a dealbreaker among Democrats, then shouldn't Obama be performing better than he is now? Or should we expect a surprisingly strong showing of support for Dennis Kucinich come caucustime?

2. Barack Obama has tapped into something very real, but his reluctance to firmly engage Hillary Clinton is blunting the potential strength of the movement he is trying to represent. Until the third quarter, Obama was leading the money chase and had the most donors. After the third quarter fundraising totals showed that Clinton had raised the most money, Obama appealed to his donors for them to help him "close the gap" with Clinton. His success in this endeavor shows that his support is deep and that his supporters are collectively powerful. But the fact that Obama is not able to "close the gap" in terms of polling against Clinton has to be discouraging for even his most ardent supporters. It's no longer enough for him to say "it's still early" because it's not. Obama continues to talk about how he'll be more aggressive, but it never comes. And when it does, it's often in the form of veiled attacks on Clinton that might be a bit too cerebral for the average voter to pick up on. He's running out of opportunities to draw blood and risks having his supporters quietly defect to other campaigns. Right now, Obama is not coming across like a fighter. How can voters fight for their candidate at the caucuses when that candidate is barely willing to fight for himself?

3. Talk about lobbyists and corruption seem to make good talking points, but they are a bit less successful at moving the needle. Or is it the messenger? Consider John Edwards, who is running an unabashedly populist campaign. Edwards' numbers are slowly declining in Iowa and South Carolina, both of which are states where he should reasonably be expected to do well. He has been the most aggressive candidate in the debates and is not hesitating to attack Clinton and her corporate ties. Anyone who watches Lou Dobbs knows that corruption, lobbying, and broken government are galvanizing issues. And Edwards is railing against these very issues. So what gives? He is an attractive Southern politician who connects with rural voters. His electability argument has some resonance as well, as his geography could potentially put some red states in play to counter Rudy Giuliani's assertion that he could put some blue states in play. And yet, he is falling off the pace. Do the haircut and hedge fund stories make him a hypocrite who has no credibility? Or is he regarded as a has-been because of his failed candidacy in 2004?

4. None of the second-tier candidates has emerged as the primary challenger to the comparatively less experienced Barack Clintedwards. Bill Richardson has the better fundraising and polling, while Joe Biden has the more credible Iraq message and more endorsements. Richardson and Biden are mired in the 5-10% range in most polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Just like Obama and Edwards, these two candidates cannot coexist because they both appeal to voters who desire an experienced candidate not named Hillary Clinton. If one of these candidates drops out, the other would clearly benefit and have a much easier road to gaining visibility. The newly open Senate seat in New Mexico is a tempting destination for Richardson, but he has expressed no interest in it (yet). And Biden's poor fundraising is not putting an end to doubts about his viability. Who will outlive who? Will it not be a Senate seat or fundraising prowess, but rather Iraq that delivers the knockout punch to one of these candidates? What do defections like this portend?

5. Nobody still knows who Chris Dodd is. His politics put him squarely in the Democratic mainstream. He has an impressive resume and a likable personality, but his polling is as anemic as Mike Gravel's. He has failed to distinguish himself in the debates and is not a particularly compelling speaker. This could work to Dodd's advantage in that voters may tire of all the warts of Barack Clintedwards and be leery of Richardson's and Biden's tendency to have their mouths get away from them. This would leave Dodd as the untainted statesman. But it would certainly help his case if Dodd had at least some favorable buzz about his campaign because how comfortable will Democratic voters be with entrusting their hopes to Mr. Invisible?

Stay tuned for my post-debate analysis.

2 comment(s):

Alex Smith said...

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Reginald Harrison Williams said...

Let me tell you something that is really underestimated: the tight race in the Iowa caucus.

I think Hilary and Barack are in a statistical "dead heat" if I'm not mistakened.

Personally? I think Hilary is going to come in a very very close second.

Wouldn't that be a kick in the pants?

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.