Showing posts with label debates. Show all posts
Showing posts with label debates. Show all posts


Rethinking 2012

Politicians, political parties, national leaders, and voters are going to have to do a bit of soulsearching and get serious about how they go about electing future presidents. As entertaining as the 2008 primary season has been so far with its intricacies and unpredictable storylines, it has revealed some very troubling weaknesses that do not reflect favorably on our political institutions and ultimately provide a disservice to the nation.

The Presidency of the United States is the single most important institution on Earth. Issues of war and peace, the international economy, and the freedoms we enjoy are all dependent on this one person. Shouldn't the importance and seriousness of this office be determined by a process that is equally serious?

Here are, in no particular order, criticisms of this campaign that should be addressed.

The 2008 field was winnowed too much too soon. Even though the presidential election is still about eight months away, the campaign essentially started more than a year ago. Now the remaining candidates (particularly Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) have torn each other down so much and have rendered themselves so unattractive to the broader electorate that one can't help but wonder why there aren't any more appealing candidates from which to choose.

Even though there are 50 states in the union, the Republican contest essentially got shut down on Super Tuesday, when only about half of the states could have their say. Even worse, the Democratic race was essentially weeded down to two candidates after South Carolina, where the fourth contest was held.

Now Republican voters in the later states are forced to accept John McCain, even though he is considered unacceptable by many in the GOP base. Any votes Mike Huckabee received in Mississippi, for example, were protest votes. Their votes don't matter. And Democratic voters in the later states are forced to choose between the negative Hillary Clinton and the controversial and fading Barack Obama (courtesy of his church).

A handful of voters in a handful of small states wielded a disproportionately large influence over the process, and not in a good way. John Edwards is probably wishing he didn't drop out of the race so soon. And the invisible second-tier candidates, such as Chris Dodd (who was often maligned for being a boring old Washington hand in the debates), suddenly look a lot more attractive as Clinton and Obama go at each other's throats. Nobody would be talking about controversial pastors, inexperience, race-bating, and rhetoric with no substance. But a few thousand voters in Iowa completely shut his candidacy out. The same could be said of Duncan Hunter (the authentic conservative Republicans were looking for), Joe Biden (the muscular and charismatic Democrat the left was looking for), and a few other lesser known candidates.

By the time September rolls around, most Americans will be sick of hearing about McCain, Obama, and/or Clinton. And many voters will lament that they don't really like any of those candidates. And on top of this, these candidates were thrust upon us too soon by an accelerated and frontloaded calendar. What a long time voters have to deal with buyer's remorse.

There should be a more equitable, more orderly, and better paced schedule of primaries and caucuses. Before the schedule became finalized, there were rumblings that the first primaries and caucuses would take place before Christmas last year, which is absurd. It is easy to understand why everybody wants to be first, but there should be better reasons to justify why some states should have their contests before others.

"Tradition" is not a good enough reason to keep rewarding the same states over and over again by granting them the first bite of the apple. Claiming that Iowa and New Hampshire should go first because they are small states also doesn't hold water because there are several states that are even smaller in terms of population and/or size. Why not let Delaware or Montana go first? Or why not give Alabama a chance? Saying that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire take politics more seriously is only an affront to voters in other states who would undoubtedly display the same amount of seriousness if they had the same opportunity. What would make a voter in Concord, New Hampshire, more serious about politics than a voter in Concord, North Carolina?

I have written much about ways to improve the primary process (read Primarily Stupid and Primarily Stupid: Part 2 for more information). Perhaps the most logical idea would be to assign the order of the primaries according to voter turnout in the previous presidential election. This way, voters in all states would have an incentive to turn out, even in "noncompetitive" states like New York or Texas. Imagine being a Democrat in Idaho or a Republican in Hawaii. Your vote would actually count for something! States that display the highest percentage of voter turnout should have their primaries be scheduled earlier. Such states would have proven their seriousness and would deserve to go first. States that display lower turnout should be lumped together and have their primaries take place later. And because the order of the primaries would change from cycle to cycle, politicians would be unable to canvass the same states every presidential cycle even before the primary and caucus dates are established. This proposal would bring more voters into the process and encourage healthy competition.

There is no grown-up in the room, which has led to chaos. All the states were tripping over each other to be first this time around. And two states, Michigan and Florida, rightfully stand to be penalized for trying to break the party rules. Now there's the specter of a fight on the convention floor if the delegates from those two states aren't seated. But if the Democratic Party does not penalize them, then what will prevent another state from violating the calendar and the party rules by setting up their 2012 primary right after the 2010 midterm elections? And if those states are allowed to revote, then they will essentially be rewarded for breaking the rules. It's absolute madness. If the national parties are unable to maintain control over their state parties, then the parties should either be disbanded or sanctioned by an entity with more authority. Having a firm and enforceable primary order (with flexible primary dates) is an idea worthy of serious consideration. And as for the unfortunate voters in Michigan and Florida, like Glenn Beck aptly suggested, you should stop crying about how the big bad Howard Dean and the national parties disenfranchised you. The real culprits are closer to home.

The primary system should be more equitable for the less well-funded and less well-known candidates. The 2008 roster initially included around twenty different presidential aspirants--Fred Thompson, Mark Warner, Mike Huckabee, Bill Richardson, Sam Brownback, and Dennis Kucinich, to name a few. They each represented a unique slice of the electorate and offered their own particular skill set. Regardless of their electoral chances, they all deserved to be heard. The reason for this is that the less well-funded and less well-known candidates were caught in a real bind. The only way they could increase their visibility was to raise money for advertising and campaign operations. But the only way they could raise this campaign cash was for them to increase their visibility. As a result, you had potentially attractive candidates who were forever mired in the second and third tiers, such as Duncan Hunter of the Republicans and Joe Biden of the Democrats. You also had promising and unique candidates who were intimidated by the fundraising juggernauts of the bigshot candidates and ultimately decided to drop out prematurely, such as Russ Feingold and Tom Vilsack.

Now the Democratic race has come down to the two candidates who had sat atop the field since the beginning: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The winner of the Republican race had to travel through the fire and escape political death a few times, but John McCain finished where he started a year ago--as the frontrunner.

John Edwards was never able to crack the armor of the top two Democrats. Bill Richardson flirted with the so-called top tier, but never could get over the top. Sam Brownback was essentially running in place before his defeat at the Ames Straw Poll. And Tommy Thompson struggled to get voters to think of him when they heard the name "Thompson," instead of the better known actor known as Fred.

Only Mike Huckabee was able to make a real surge that was unexpected by most pundits and media practicioners (though it was no surprise to me), but he was unable to translate this surge into electoral gold (at least not this time around) because of Fred Thompson, whose presence ruined Huckabee in South Carolina.

First Amendment advocates would probably say nothing is wrong with the system. And they would even defend the airing of all sorts of misleading or inaccurate ads and the distribution of misleading and outrageous campaign literature as free speech that is protected by the Constitution. However, when a poor candidate is able to dump millions of dollars from his personal fortune into the race while an honorable or better qualified one can't raise any cash needed to retort, it's not particularly fair.

Freedom of speech is a moot concept if some people have more freedom than others. This could be remedied with public financing of elections, but no politician wants to part with his war chest. However, when a candidate receives donations from Interest Group X or Company Y, that weds a candidate to this entity's interests. And spending more time legislating, campaigning, or debating seems more productive and more beneficial for our democracy than simply racing from one fundraiser to another.

The media should promote and conduct debates that matter. There was certainly no shortage of debates last year and even earlier this year when the field was so crowded. However, the media really missed some opportunities to ask meaningful questions and address the issues that matter to real people, rather than dwell on the minutiae of the daily news cycle. Of course, voters are complicit in these disappointing extended campaign ads and stump speeches that masquerade as debates. Voters should reward politicians that get into specifics, don't talk around questions, and articulate their views in a mature and thoughtful way. If the media understand that this is what voters want, they will adapt.

Some politicians, particularly the lower-tier candidates, lamented their inability to get their message out in the debates. When eight or nine candidates are competing for talking time, it can be difficult to balance the questions. A potential remedy would be to divide the debates so that half of the candidates could participate in one debate while half participate in the other. Or half of the candidates could participate in the first half of one debate while the other candidates participate in the second half. The main point is that nobody really benefits when there are so many candidates duking it out on stage, especially given politicians' propensity to be so longwinded in their responses or take awhile to warmup and actually address the moderators' questions.

American politics may be entertaining, but given the stakes of this year's election, entertainment should take a backseat to competence, pragmatism, and fairness. Unfortunately, the campaign season thus far has been anything but that. And everyone has a responsibility to fix it.


Edwards: The Clinton-Obama Pivot

Much has been written about last week's Democratic debate in Philadelphia. Judging from most of the accounts I've read, the thing everyone seems to be talking about is Hillary Clinton's equivocations regarding the driver's license issue for illegal aliens. To Clinton's credit, the illegal immigration issue is extraordinarily complex--one that is difficult to reduce to bimodal yes-or-no thinking. However, the political consequences of such caution can be quite harmful, as one's thoughtfulness can easily be spun as pandering, hedging one's bets, dodging the issue, trying to have it both ways, or political expediency.

John Edwards picked up on this immediately and attacked Clinton hard for it during the debate. Since then, he has worked hard to drive "Hillary's double-talk" home, as is evidenced by this tough video his campaign crafted shortly after the debate. However, for the Edwards campaign, his attacks on Clinton have had more than just the benefits of getting Democratic voters to rethink their support for Hillary Clinton and changing the media's storylines about her. They also had the added benefit of getting Barack Obama's supporters to wish that their candidate could be as aggressive as Edwards was.

Dan Conley of Political Insider recently wrote about the frustration and anger that Chicago and Illinois politicos have about Obama's "inept" campaign. According to Conley:

"[T]hose more interested in stopping [Clinton's] nomination now feel that Edwards, or even Biden, would have made better use of Obama's hype and money."
Now, to Obama's credit, as I mentioned in my debate analysis, he did a better job of "showing his spine without showing his fangs" when he attempted to draw contrasts with Clinton.

The problem is that voters tend to respond to hardball politics and hardhitting attacks. It is common for voters to say they hate negative politics, but that doesn't seem to be what they respond to. The 2004 swiftboating of John Kerry, the sliming of John McCain during the 2000 South Carolina presidential primary, and the attacks on the patriotism of former Georgia senator and Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland during the 2002 campaign are perfect examples of this. Note that all three of these candidates lost.

Barack Obama is not being attacked by other Democrats the same way Kerry, McCain, and Cleland were attacked by their Republican opponents. However, all three of these candidates lost to more aggressive opponents who engaged in hardball politics. This is not to endorse the tactics of George W. Bush and Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, but it does prove the point that strong attacks can yield good results. Politicians who try to take the high road and adopt a more cerebral strategy often end up in the loser's column. For example, Al Gore's ability to recite the names of the major politicians and power players in the Balkans during the 2000 presidential debates (done in an attempt to distinguish himself as well versed in foreign policy, as opposed to his "I know nothing about the world" opponent George W. Bush) did not help him.

This is why I believe Edwards stands to benefit from possible defections from Obama's campaign. If Clinton can't deliver change because of her "double-talk" and Obama can't deliver change because of his perceived inability to fight for change, then that would leave Edwards as the lone candidate capable of both fighting for and delivering the change the other candidates jawbone about.

The Iran issue provides another avenue through which Edwards can make the case against Obama. One of the most important political columns I've read this year was written by Nathan Gonzales of The Rothenberg Political Report. In his column, Gonzales cited numerous examples from Obama's tenure in the Illinois state legislature that exposes Obama as potentially unable or unwilling to take a stand on several key issues:
"While some conservatives and Republicans surely will harp on what they call his "liberal record," highlighting applicable votes to support their case, it's Obama's history of voting "present" in Springfield--even on some of the most controversial and politically explosive issues of the day--that raises questions that he will need to answer. Voting "present" is one of three options in the Illinois Legislature (along with "yes" and "no"), but it's almost never an option for the occupant of the Oval Office.

We aren't talking about a "present" vote on whether to name a state office building after a deceased state official, but rather about votes that reflect an officeholder's core values."
Gonzales then goes on to talk about how Obama voted "present" on issues related to partial birth abortion and concealed firearms. His column is an interesting and important read that should provide his Democratic opponents (especially Edwards and maybe even Biden) with a way to weaken him.

How does this relate to Iran?

Last month the Senate voted to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. The resolution passed 76-22. Hillary Clinton voted for it, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd voted against it, and Barack Obama, who was campaigning that day, did not vote. Obama says he would have voted "no," but for voters who are unaware of the reasons behind Obama's missed vote, this missed vote feeds into the narrative that Nathan Gonzales wrote about earlier.

To continue, senators eager to avoid a repeat of Iraq wrote a letter to President Bush stressing that Bush does not have the authority to launch a unilateral strike against Iran without congressional approval:
"We are writing to express serious concerns with the provocative statements and actions stemming from your administration with respect to possible U.S. military action in Iran. These comments are counterproductive and undermine efforts to resolve tensions with Iran through diplomacy.

We wish to emphasize that no congressional authority exists for unilateral military action against Iran."
This is an important letter that provides senators with a bit of political cover while attempting to rein in President Bush. Thirty senators, led by Senator James Webb of Virginia, signed this letter. As Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone asks, "did yours?" Clinton and Dodd signed the letter, but Obama did not. Again, recall Nathan Gonzales' column. Real Clear Politics' Reid Wilson also picked up on this:
"The missed opportunity is not the first time Obama's Senate record has been put seemingly at odds with his campaign rhetoric on the issue."
Obama did later introduce a resolution stating that Bush does not have the authority to attack Iran, but this invites the criticism of him being absent from the original discussion during the Kyl-Lieberman vote and not getting on the record then. Not signing the letter drafted by Senator Webb of Virginia provides another point of criticism, especially since Obama's resolution generally says the same thing that Webb's letter does.

In response to Clinton's criticism of Obama's resolution, Obama spokesman Bill Burton said, "...Senator Obama knows that it takes legislation, not letters, to undo the vote that she cast." However, this new resolution from Obama could be used to portray him as a "Johnny come lately" because his resolution addresses issues that have been hotly debated before. If John Edwards is paying attention, he can pivot from taking down Clinton for her "double-talk" to using Obama's Illinois record of not voting on several key issues, his reticence to hit his opponents (read Clinton) hard, and his missed vote on Iran to paint him as a candidate of all talk and no action.

"All talk" and "double-talk" has a certain resonance. Whether it paints him as a negative candidate in Iowa remains to be seen, but it would definitely tap into the anger and frustration that many Democrats have about their leading presidential candidates and the Democratic Congress right now.


New Hampshire Debate Analysis (D)

(NOTE: This blog post is an analysis of the Democratic debate that took place in New Hampshire in September 2007. For my analysis of the debate that took place in New Hampshire in January 2008, click here for the Republicans and here for the Democrats.)

Wednesday night the eight declared Democratic presidential candidates met in New Hampshire for a debate moderated by Tim Russert. Of all the Democratic debates so far, this debate was the most substantive in that the moderator tried and succeeded in forcing the candidates to move beyond their traditional talking points and actually explain their policies in meaningful detail. Several of the questions also put the candidates in awkward positions as they had to explain away apparent contradictions in their rhetoric.

Regarding the focus of the debate, there was a heavy emphasis on Iraq and Iran. Surprisingly little attention was paid to economic issues. Only one question was asked about Chinese product safety and that was in the lightning round towards the end of the debate. And there were also no questions addressing the recent United Auto Workers strike. This surprised me, as labor and consumer safety are traditional Democratic issues.

As for the balance of time, most of the questions were directed at Hillary Clinton. This made sense, as she is leading in all national and most state polls. Generally, the higher the candidate's position is in the overall horserace, the more talk time the candidate had, as is evidenced by the latest debate talk clock, courtesy of Chris Dodd. Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel received the least amount of time, but they did not complain about it. Joe Biden was irritated that he did not get more chances to participate during the foreign policy section of the debate, to his disadvantage. The other candidates seemed content with how much they could participate.

Perhaps the most interesting thing that happened at the debate was the fact that none of the three leading candidates could clearly state that they'd have all of the troops out of Iraq by 2013, the end of their first term. They probably do want to get the troops out before then, but they couldn't risk saying that because they had to prevent themselves from being attacked by the Republican nominee in the general election for "giving the terrorists a date of our surrender so they can wait us out." Having said that, Obama, Clinton, and Edwards sounded quite similar to George Bush on Iraq, which I'm sure totally deflated antiwar voters on the left.

As for how well the individual candidates performed...

Hillary Clinton did it again. Her performance was not stellar by any means, but because she made no fatal mistakes and was not bloodied too badly by the other candidates, she will continue to be seen as THE candidate to beat. "Hillary vs. Obama" has since become "Hillary vs. Everyone Else." Her strongest moment was when she deftly fielded a question that almost trapped her regarding a significant policy difference between her and her husband on the issue of torture. Her stern response, "Well, he's not here," was very strong and showed her toughness, her independence, and her ability to think on her feet. She later softened up by joking, "Well, I'll talk to him later." This made her seem warm, inviting, down to earth, and even funny. Her shrillness has been one of the common criticisms of her, but this exchange should force even her fiercest detractors to admit that she is an exceptionally disciplined and talented candidate.

This is not to say her performance was without fault. She used her "I'm not going to engage in hypotheticals" line again to avoid answering questions that would require her to stick her neck out more than she was politically comfortable doing. She tried her best to avoid answering a question about how justified Israel would be in launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran and chose to talk over the moderator and filibuster instead. Also, her response to the issue of Social Security was absolutely terrible. She would not specify what she would and would not put on the table regarding maintaining its solvency and instead chose to have her Social Security fixes be contingent on the prior establishment of fiscal responsibility. These exchanges evoked images of political calculation rather than presidential leadership. If anything, it gave her opponents their blueprints for how they can attack her from now on. Some voters may not be too keen on her lack of boldness on these issues as well, but until another candidate compels them to vote for him instead, these voters are Clinton's to lose.

Overall, Hillary Clinton did reasonably well, but she may need to worry about a new front opening up from her left in John Edwards, who seems to be a bit less inhibited than Barack Obama when it comes to going on offense. She also seems to be pursuing a general election strategy of straddling the center and avoiding stepping on anyone's toes. However, while this strategy may work for a general election, it may be what prevents her from getting that far in the primary, especially if the other candidates force her to take clear stands on the issues.

Barack Obama was almost a nonentity during the debate. His answers were flat, he demonstrated little passion, he didn't offer much in the way of specifics (such as on sanctuary cities and Social Security), he didn't go on offense even when given the chance, and he didn't give voters a new reason why they should vote for him. This was most definitely not the performance he needed to have in order to regain his momentum. His aides say he was suffering from the flu, which may be true. However, I fear that more voters will think the bloom is off the Obama rose than will know his unspirited performance resulted from being sick. That might not be fair, but unfortunately, that's politics. Perception matters.

In a moment that likely frustrated supporters anxiously waiting for him to go on offense, Obama was asked who he was referring to when he mentioned "turning the page"--the Bushes or the Clintons. Obama essentially punted by saying he was talking about "divisive politics in general." Give Obama credit for taking the high road, but how does he expect to overtake his chief rival if he won't lay a glove on her, even if civilly? Making veiled attacks against your rivals and then denying that they are even attacks on them at all is lame. Ignoring your main rival works if you're on top. But unfortunately for Obama, he doesn't have this luxury because he's the one trailing her.

His best moment was when he spoke inspirationally. "We should stop feeding our children fear and conflict. If we feed them hope, reason, and tolerance, they become tolerant, reasonable, and hopeful." This was a very powerful statement, but I think the problem with this is that it might not be enough to sustain his candidacy. Fairly or unfairly, even though there is a large segment of voters who like this message, a lot of these voters simply want to hear more substance from him. And these voters may reach a point where they tune him out when he speaks inspirationally because they've heard that enough times already without it being followed up by anything. Obama should consider himself lucky that he was not asked why he did not vote on the Senate resolution to condemn the ad or the vote to label Iran's army a terrorist organization.

As a whole, Barack Obama was disappointing, which is a tough break because of his illness. His biggest threat now is no longer Clinton; it's the media. The media fell in love with Obama earlier this year because he was the "new" and "fresh" candidate. But with Obama's message becoming repetitive and Edwards' persistent attempts to seize the mantle of the outsider, Obama should fear that the media begin to generate stories about his possible fall from grace. It seems that the media are already turning on his campaign in terms of how they cover him.

John Edwards: As I expected, Edwards was considerably more aggressive at this debate than in previous ones. He received little help from Obama on the Hillary-bashing front, so he was Clinton's primary aggressor. From a substantive standpoint, he outlined clear contrasts between himself and Clinton regarding Iraq. This was important, as Clinton has successfully moved to the left on this issue without abandoning the center. As a result, Clinton and Edwards' Iraq policies became more indistinguishable. Now voters realize their differences again.

The toughest moments for Edwards involved the question about his past work at a hedge fund and how his current rhetoric about Social Security contradicts his rhetoric from the 2004 campaign. This was damaging because Edwards has a negative perception of being a hypocrite who has no core values and will say anything to get elected.

All in all, Edwards spoke with great passion and was clearly the outsider on stage. Democrats are angry, and I think Edwards tapped into this anger. Because of his fire, I can't help but wonder if he poached some of Obama's supporters. He was probably the most audacious candidate on stage and I really think he took a huge step towards overtaking Obama and becoming the main Clinton alternative candidate. Obama is generally seen as the firewall separating Edwards from Clinton. However, if Obama continues to hold his fire and Edwards continues to strongly engage Clinton, this may give the media a fresh storyline that Edwards could use to improve his fundraising totals. Also, given that Edwards has run quite far to the left, he may have exposed himself a bit too much for the general election. However, at least he took a major step towards just making it that far based on his strong performance Wednesday night.

Bill Richardson turned in another erratic performance consisting of a strong grasp of policy mixed with off-putting remarks. He is clearly competent on foreign policy, but did not come across as galvanizing. His knowledge of Iran and how to leverage it economically was impressive indeed. Having said that, Iraq may very well be the issue that saves him since the top three candidates could not clearly state that they would get American troops out of Iraq by the end of their first presidential term in 2013. Even though Richardson is a moderate, his Iraq withdrawal position should be quite popular with the left.

However, the credibility he built up on foreign policy may have been diminished by his weak response to the issue of Social Security. He basically said that Social Security could be solved by growing the economy. Tim Russert seemed incredulous and quipped, "this is not funny money" before giving him a chance to elaborate. Richardson clearly seemed averse to raising taxes or raising the eligibility age, perhaps so he could maintain his appeal among moderates and fiscal conservatives without scaring senior citizens.

Richardson also foolishly made the mistake of veering off topic and reverting to his talking points regarding "getting all of our troops out of Iraq in one year," but he was reprimanded by the moderator for doing so and was forced to express exactly how he planned to do that. His follow-up answer was a bit less convincing.

His worst moment, however, was his unfunny quip to one of the questioners when she asked him about illegal immigration. He said, "You asked me that because I was Hispanic, right?" The audience laughed nervously, but it was clearly an uncomfortable moment and a stupid remark that would have been better left unsaid. Unfortunately for Richardson, his response to the question of illegal immigration was quite sensible and comprehensive, but I think many voters didn't hear what he was saying because they were so put off by his initial remark.

In short, Richardson didn't do much to change the narrative that he is a great candidate on paper, but a disappointing candidate in person. Richardson was a popular dark horse candidate who, in my mind, has gone from being a possible surprise presidential nominee, to being on the VP short list, to being a good Secretary of State choice, to being sent back to New Mexico. Richardson has a lot of good policy ideas, but his delivery seems to be a hybrid consisting of the worst elements of Bush's inappropriateness and Kerry's awkwardness.

Joe Biden started fairly slowly, but gained steam in the second half of the debate. One of his most effective lines was his attack on Clinton asserting that she would have difficulty generating Republican support for her legislation simply because so many Republicans do not like her and would love to politically weaken her by blocking her initiatives. He contrasted this by trumpeting his own success with getting his nonbinding resolution on Iraq passed with the support of a majority of Republicans. Whether pragmatists pick up on this contrast remains to be seen, but it was a strong attack that did not seem like an attack.

Biden's greatest strength was his directness. Several of the other candidates obfuscated and had to be pinned down by the moderator, but Biden was usually much more succinct. He displayed a firm command of all the issues presented to him and took things a step further by addressing why popular solutions to some of the nation's ills are unfeasible. He was clearly frustrated early in the debate as he wanted to express his opinions on Iran and foreign policy in general, but calmed down and made no major mistakes. He has clearly found his niche, but whether he will be able to capitalize on this in terms of fundraising remains to be seen. He is definitely the strongest of the second tier candidates.

Chris Dodd was already in the back of the pack before the debate started, and he did nothing to break out from the pack by the time it finished. In perhaps his most memorable moment, he was given the chance to directly challenge Clinton's electability (by expounding on his assertion that Republicans would be happy to face her) and he demurred just like Obama did. This made him look very weak. He later tried to attack Obama by saying that "proven results" matter in addition to "experience and judgment," but Dodd had already weakened himself so much that this attack on Obama did not really draw any blood. In addition to this, he continued to speak like a senator rather than a president and was generally uninspiring to listen to. He did clearly state that he would have all the military troops out by 2013, but I doubt many people were listening.

Unfortunately, even though he has a credible campaign operation and a respectable campaign war chest, I believe Dodd has slid into political obsolescence. He seems to be a me-too generic Democrat who is less provocative than Mike Gravel and less compelling than Dennis Kucinich.

As for Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, it's hard to to classify these two candidates. Kucinich raised some good points about Iraq, Gravel made a good point about lowering the drinking age to 18, and they both made a few other good points (like Gravel on illegal immigration and scapegoating). However, they also made some totally bizarre statements that remind voters why they will not receive the nomination and why they should not be invited to future debates. Kucinich managed to give a very unpresidential shoutout to his mother ("Hi, Mom!") and advocated paying reparations to the Iraqis (which surely did not go over well) and Gravel said he shouldn't have to repay his credit card debts. I'm sure there are millions of voters out there who owe Master Card and Visa hundreds or thousands of dollars and shook their heads in disbelief when they heard that. For all of Gravel's good moments (like saying he was "ashamed" of Clinton for her Iran vote, calling out Obama for not even voting at all, and his advice to congressional Democrats about ending the war), there are so many other moments that make him seem unstable. The end result is lost time that could have been spent having the more credible candidates flesh out their policy differences more thoroughly.

All in all...

Hillary Clinton did okay during the debate, but should avoid looking ahead to the general election prematurely.

Barack Obama clearly underperformed in this debate and risks having his message co-opted by John Edwards.

John Edwards turned in the best performance of the night with a spirited delivery and some strong attacks on his strongest rival, Hillary Clinton.

Bill Richardson was mediocre. I get the sense that his momentum in Iowa and New Hampshire will fade a bit after this performance.

Joe Biden did a very good job and has the best message on Iraq. As long as the focus remains on Iraq, Iran, and foreign policy, he has a chance to move up.

Chris Dodd was weak and uninspiring.

Dennis Kucinich was Dennis Kucinich. The problem is, voters already know what he stands for and aren't interested.

Mike Gravel made strong, excellent points. But they were clearly overshadowed by his off the wall remark about not having to repay his credit card debt.

It seems like there are now five plausible candidates remaining.


New Hampshire Debate Preview (D)

All eight declared Democratic presidential candidates will meet for yet another debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire tomorrow evening. The debate will be moderated by Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press." This will be the first major Democratic presidential debate of the fall. It also may be the final best chance some of the candidates have to make a move in the race, as the Iowa caucuses are only about three months away, more voters are paying more attention, and voters who hadn't paid much attention to the race before may get their first exposure to these candidates tomorrow evening. So this may be the candidates' last best chance to make a good first impression.

Here are my expectations for the debate:

The last Republican debate on Fox was the most contentious of all the debates by far. The exchange between Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul over Iraq likely hasn't been forgotten even by Democrats who are unlikely to vote Republican. It made for great television, provided one of the rare substantive exchanges of policy positions, and really helped voters understand the differences between the candidates. I expect moderator Tim Russert to use his discretion to allow and encourage the candidates to mix it up a bit. Frankly, while most of the Democratic debates have been relatively tame and civil thus far, they have disadvantaged all candidates not named Clinton because they succeeded in doing nothing but maintain the status quo. In other words, the longer the Democrats keep their powder dry, the stronger Clinton's political inertia becomes.

In addition to expecting Russert to set the stage for confrontation, I'm expecting him to grill the candidates a bit more on their policy positions and why their positions are better than their opponents'. On Iraq, look for him to probe the candidates to go beyond "we must get out now" or "cut off the funding immediately" and focus more on where we go from here. Health care, union rights, Chinese products, and Iran should also receive a lot of time in light of Bush's threatening to veto the expansion of the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program, the United Auto Workers' strike, the Chinese product recalls, and Iranian president's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent speech at the United Nations and Columbia University.

Russert may also set some traps for the other candidates which may require them to hedge their bets. He can do this by asking the other candidates why Hillary Clinton is the wrong candidate for the Democrats. Candidates who have avoided attacking her too harshly in the past because they are angling for a cabinet position or the vice presidency slot in a Clinton administration would have to either go for broke and attack her or demure and risk eliminating their chances of seizing the nomination for themselves. This race has been in such statis for so long that this may be the only thing that shakes things up a bit. In light of Clinton's rising polls and burgeoning sense of inevitability, withstanding attacks about why she's not the best candidate may be the only thing that stops her.

Here's what I expect from the actual candidates:

Hillary Clinton: This debate is hers to lose. All she has to do is maintain the status quo. If all the candidates attack her collectively, she will be able to use that to show that she's tough, she's the frontrunner, and she's staying positive while everyone else resorts to negative politics. I expect her to discredit Obama and Edwards' Iraq policies implicitly by stressing how unfeasible their policies are. Iraq is no longer the Achilees Heel that it used to be for her because of how she has finessed the issue thus far. Look for her to continue taking potshots at Bush and the Republicans. In addition to ginning up the base, this also contributes to the aura of inevitability surrounding her campaign. Either get on board now or get left in the cold. She should expect to be attacked more severely than in previous debates, particularly by all candidates not named Obama. If she beats expectations again tomorrow, she will be very difficult to beat.

Barack Obama: Obama clearly seems to have lost some of his momentum, as his standing in the polls has trended downward in Iowa and New Hampshire. I think he has done a good job of introducing himself to voters, but he seems not to have compelled them to support his candidacy. He needs to go on the attack against Clinton in order to bring her back from the stratosphere, but I think he's uncomfortable doing so. His rhetoric about "a different kind of politics" and "the politics of hope" may be contradicted by being too aggressive against Clinton. Obama needs a second act in order to remind voters why they liked him in the first place. Displaying a strong grasp of policy and being able to articulate himself beyond his common slogans would serve him well because lack of depth is still one of the criticisms of his campaign. Look for him to be asked why he did not vote on the condemnation of the ad. John Edwards will probably launch several attacks on Obama, but do not look for Obama to take the bait because his focus is on Clinton.

John Edwards: This debate is particularly important for John Edwards because of how fragile his campaign is right now. His fundraising has lagged behind Obama and Clinton's, and the momentum is clearly on Clinton's side in Iowa, which is a must-win for Edwards. It's his firewall. If John Edwards loses Iowa, his campaign is finished. So look for him to speak with great passion. Even though the debate is taking place in New Hampshire, he'll be speaking directly to Iowans. He should hope he is asked several questions about labor and the UAW strike to burnish his labor credentials because he cannot afford to cede the labor vote to Clinton. Other than Mike Gravel, look for Edwards be on offense more than any other candidate. Also, John Edwards should make sure that Joe Biden does not outshine him when it comes to having a grasp of the concerns of organized labor.

Bill Richardson: Bill Richardson has seen his poll position in Iowa and New Hampshire improve as a result of his humorous "Job Interview" campaign ads. However, he has since seen his momentum and support trail off. Richardson's experience has been co-opted by Clinton, who is now seen as the "experience" candidate. So he needs to find a way to differentiate himself somehow. He does have one ace in the hole that should appeal to moderate Democrats in Iowa and independent voters in New Hampshire: guns. Richardson was the only Democrat to address the recent meeting of the National Rifle Association. Playing up his moderate credentials may endear him to a wing of the Democratic Party that is not well-represented by its presidential candidates in light of the departures of Tom Vilsack, Evan Bayh, and Mark Warner. Of course, Richardson has gone very much to the left on Iraq, but he should have plenty of daylight in the center regarding social and cultural issues.

Joe Biden: There was a presidential debate early Sunday morning in Iowa a few weeks ago that featured a sharp exchange between Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, arguably the two most experienced candidates in the field. The exchange was about Iraq and how many troops should be removed. Joe Biden came out on top in exchange and made Richardson's Iraq policy seem unfeasible. Since then, Biden has been speaking out a lot on Iraq and has made that the main issue of his campaign. (Consider this editorial he wrote that appeared in today's edition of my local paper.) Richardson is generally running 4th in Iowa, so he is the easiest candidate for Biden to catch. Even though they are personal friends, look for Biden to be particularly aggressive with him. Aside from voters who place a premium on Iraq, voters who like Richardson on paper but don't like him in person constitute Biden's main audience. The other candidates have expressed support for his Iraq policy before, but if they do it too much again at the debate, that could be turned into an easy campaign ad for Biden.

Chris Dodd: Dodd does not have much to lose. He is unlikely to be a vice presidential choice (he hails from an already-blue state) and he is unlikely to be a choice for a cabinet secretary (because Connecticut's governor is a Republican and she would likely appoint a Republican to fill his Senate seat), so Dodd might as well just come out swinging and hope he lands a few blows. Dodd is saying all the right things that Democrats like to hear, but his delivery sounds more senatorial than presidential. If Dodd were to speak with a bit more force and a greater sense of authority, he could be the breakout candidate of the night.

Dennis Kucinich: Look for Kucinich to own the labor issue and express genuine outrage over the Chinese product recalls. I expect that he'll get a lot of applause lines, but will ultimately win little new support. Kucinich is not a gadfly candidate, but he does not have much of a campaign apparatus. This may very well be the last debate he is invited to.

Mike Gravel: The threat from Mike Gravel is his confrontational style. He will not be the Democratic nominee, but he might play a role in determining who else it won't be. He is not afraid to challenge the other candidates and may put another more credible candidate in a particularly awkward position. He tried going after Barack Obama in a previous debate, but Obama successfully parried his attack. Will his next target be as lucky? I do not expect him to be invited to any future debates either.

In short, look for Clinton to do what she's been doing in all the debates thus far. Obama has been struggling a bit as of late and needs to present something new. Edwards is in trouble and is going to have a laser beam aimed directly at Clinton. Richardson may try to stay above the fray, but end up lost in the shuffle. Biden is going to ride Iraq to the very end. Dodd has nothing to lose and everything to gain, so he can afford to be loose. Kucinich will be the Democrats' conscience once again, but is not going to move his poll numbers. Gravel will be a wild card yet again who either brings down an unsuspecting candidate or provides more fodder for the late night comedians.

Stay tuned for my post-debate analysis.


New Hampshire Debate Analysis (R)

The Republicans debated tonight in New Hampshire on Fox. Of all the debates I've seen so far, be they Democratic or Republican, this debate was by far the most substantive. I really hope future debates will have as many meaningful exchanges as this one.

Debate format

There were 8 candidates on stage. Fred Thompson was not one of them. The debate lasted about an hour and a half and featured questions from the moderators as well as occasional questions from random voters in a local cafe. The questions from the random voters were hit and miss, as one of the voters struggled to get his question out while another one gave Mitt Romney a verbal punch to the jaw. I think Fox was trying to make this debate and the politicians seem more accessible by opening it up to random voters to participate, but I think it ultimately turned out to be time that could have been better spent having the moderators ask more questions.

Regarding the technical aspects of the debate, it seemed that some of the candidates were having trouble hearing the questions. This seemed to be more of a problem when the moderators were trying to talk over chatter or applause from the audience.

The candidates themselves seemed pretty disciplined at first in regards to adhering to the time limits established for the debate. But as the debate progressed, some of the candidates became a bit more longwinded and should have been reined in.

As for the debate questions, most of them were very sharp and did not make it easy for the candidates to revert to their talking points. However, the hypothetical question about Iranian nukes was too complex to be meaningful. The moderators themselves were tough and did a good job of asking the right candidates the right questions. Ron Paul got a lot of time to talk about Iraq, Huckabee got a good chance to talk about abortion, and Giuliani got a good opportunity to talk about terrorism. The candidates clearly did not get equal time, but the ones who got shortchanged on time were generally the candidates who are either in major trouble or should simply withdraw from the race. One thing I did not particularly like, however, was how one of the moderators immaturely twisted Ron Paul's response about Iraq to ask him if "the US should take its marching orders from Al Qaeda." This is an example of the bias that makes the Democrats stay away from Fox.

There was one subject that I was surprised they didn't address. In light of the foiled terrorist plots in Germany, why weren't there any questions about whether the United States was fighting on the right battlefield in Iraq? If President Bush says we're in Iraq to defeat terrorism, how do you reconcile our fighting there with terrorists trying to bring down one of our allies thousands of miles away?

Also, why were there so few questions about President Bush, the man they are trying to succeed and the current leader of the Republican Party?


Thank you for playing. We have some nice parting gifts for you...

Duncan Hunter: Of all the candidates at the debate, Duncan Hunter was the least significant. His poll numbers are anemic and his responses lacked passion. He didn't get a lot of time to participate in the debate, but he wasted a lot of the time he did get to take potshots at Democrats, including using a rehearsed line to take a cheapshot at John Edwards. Aside from this joke and promising to build an 800-mile border fence in six months, he didn't really say anything memorable. I'm really not sure why he's even still in the race. Tom Tancredo is a more viable candidate that shares his signature issue of illegal immigration, and Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are more credible candidates that share his other major issue of security. How much longer will future debate organizers continue to extend invitations to him? By the way, the moderators missed a good opportunity to catch him flatfooted when he talked about the Larry Craig saga and said that one difference between Republicans and Democrats is that when Republicans screw up, they either resign or are kicked out. But when Democrats do it, he said they are promoted to committee chairmanships. So why are Republican Senators Ted Stevens and David Vitter still sticking around? Seems like a lot of sloganeering from Hunter tonight, including ridiculing last Friday's dinner at Guantanamo Bay, which included "honey glazed chicken and rice pilaf." Is he really running for President?

Sam Brownback: He was clearly upstaged by Mike Huckabee yet again. After his humiliating defeat at the Ames straw poll, Brownback decided to stay in the race and cited his foreign policy experience as one of the reasons why. Well, not only did Huckabee come across again as the more compelling pro-life candidate, he also came across better on foreign policy and leadership. Brownback had a chance to flex his foreign policy chops in response to a question about Iran, but his response was muddled and meandering. After the sharp exchange between Huckabee and Paul (more on that later), Brownback was the next candidate to jump into the fray and you could almost feel the electricity and excitement in the air dissipate when he spoke. I really don't see how Brownback can continue his candidacy when his chief rival is so much stronger and so much more appealing. Part of Brownback's problem is that he is coming across as a single-issue candidate like Tancredo even though his senatorial experience suggests there is more to him than that. So if another candidate is stronger than he is on his main issue and seems to bring more to the table than he does, it's easy to see why Brownback is in so much trouble.

Tom Tancredo: While he didn't have a terrible night, I feel he simply got overshadowed by so many other candidates on stage. Tancredo is clearly running on the far right, as he expressed no reservations about torturing terrorism suspects because "defending America" was more important. His outrage over illegal immigration and how other politicians (including his rivals) didn't seem so concerned about it until it was politically expedient was sincere. I doubt his message was well received by the New Hampshire crowd, although voters in Iowa may be more receptive to it because Iowa's Republicans are more conservative than New Hampshire's.

Not their best night...

Mitt Romney probably hurt his cause the most tonight. He really seemed off his game. His responses lacked focus, he pandered (did you know he's conducted 462 campaign events in Iowa and New Hampshire?), and he gave off an aura of throwing stones in a glass house. He really went after Rudy Giuliani, but did not seem credible attacking New York as a "sanctuary city" when Romney had similar cities in his state while he was governor and had illegals doing landscaping work at his own home. He also got into a lot of trouble when he said the military surge in Iraq is "apparently" working. John McCain attacked that statement and the moderators picked up on that later when he later said the surge "looks like" it's working. Romney hasn't said much about Iraq in the past, but he better hone his message on this soon because these types of statements will quickly turn off the supporters he has worked so hard to gain. He did a good job of speaking in generalities, but did not offer much in terms of specifics. And that hurt him. Also, he really got wounded by the angry voter who took offense to Romney's comparison of his five sons' service to his political campaign with the voter's son's service in Iraq. Is Romney becoming the unlikable candidate?

Rudy Giuliani was a bit disappointing tonight. He is clearly the lone moderate in the field, but he did not embrace that. When his conservative credentials were challenged, he often deflected the questions or answered them in ways that didn't require him to defend or explain himself, such as talking about "states' rights" in response to the right to carry handguns on college campuses. "States' rights" seems to be a clever response Republican candidates use when talking about controversial issues that they don't want to be pinned down on, presumably because they don't want to hamstring themselves in the general election. The Confederate flag is another example of this. Remember how Bush and McCain talked about "states' rights" regarding taking the flag off the South Carolina Statehouse? You can support the flag or you can oppose the flag. Citing "states' rights" as a way to avoid stating your support or opposition to something is a bit weak, in my opinion. Anyway, I got the sense that Rudy Giuliani was running solely on his tenure as New York mayor and his leadership on September 11. He even compared releasing the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to releasing illegal immigrant prisoners in New York. If Republican voters were looking for substance, Giuliani likely disappointed them tonight. He used a few buzz words, such as "liberal media, surrender, the terrorists' war against us, etc.," but I think the audience was in the mood for something a bit more substantive than that. He also took a shot at Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards for not having led a city, a state, or a business. This may be true, but what's the point of mentioning this at a Republican primary debate? Unless he's trying to turn independent voters away from Obama, I'm not really sure why he invoked their names tonight. (Keep in mind that independents are allowed to participate in the New Hampshire primaries.) Curiously, he said "he's not running on what he did on 9-11." But if that's the case, then why should he be viewed as the national security candidate? And does anyone actually believe 9-11 is not a major part of his candidacy?

Flying high, feeling good...

John McCain really helped right his ship tonight. He had some funny lines (including one early on about it being past Fred Thompson's bedtime) that weren't rehearsed and spoke with a lot more vigor. Perhaps he was trying to allay fears that he's too old to be President? He also demonstrated the most leadership and made a very effective attack on both Romney and Giuliani by saying "he doesn't want to manage; he wants to lead." Other candidates were praising him for his leadership and his "honor." One of his best moments was in response to a question about torture. He invoked Colin Powell and said that the people who were against torture were the ones who have worn the uniform while those who supported torture had never served. That was a strong attack on the so-called chickenhawks that talk tough about war and the military, but never served. Even though this took place right after Tancredo's defense of torture, this was a very effective attack against Romney and Giuliani. McCain was also candid about why Republicans were in trouble and how some of them are even in prison now. Has the "Straight Talk" bus pulled back into the station? Have the pundits written him off too soon? Could he really be the steady conservative that Republicans are looking for? He looked much more presidential and sincere than both Giuliani and Romney for sure. One question I had about him was his remark about how the American hostages were released by Iran on the same day Ronald Reagan took the oath of office. McCain suggested that the hostages were released because the Iranians feared Reagan. Someone will undoubtedly fact check this assertion.

Mike Huckabee probably entered the top tier by virtue of his solid performance tonight. Mitt Romney should be very afraid. Huckabee covered all his bases. He deftly worked the "life" angle by invoking the lost miners of Utah, he worked the humility angle by telling voters about a lesson his mother taught him when he was a child ("if you break it, you buy it"), he placated evangelicals by saying the United States is "one nation under God", and he pleased independents and fed-up voters by not throwing out a lot of red meat and empty slogans. He and Ron Paul had a very powerful, memorable exchange about Iraq tonight that will certainly make the rounds on You Tube. Another strong moment for Huckabee was his response to a question about illegal immigration. He said that Americans should not penalize illegal immigrants for doing what their own ancestors did several generations beforehand. The nativist wing of the party probably didn't like that, but I think he impressed a lot more moderates and independents with this truly compassionate conservative response. In a poignant moment, Huckabee was deferential to McCain by sincerely praising his "honor." Could a McCain-Huckabee ticket be in the works? In my estimation, Mike Huckabee should be the one Republican that the Democrats most definitely don't want to run against because he is a consistently powerful speaker and is able to credibly run as a "change" or "outsider" candidate.

I don't know how to classify Ron Paul. He definitely won the war of ideas even though he may not have won the actual debate.

Aside from Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul was probably the most authentic candidate on stage. And he was definitely consistent. The arguments he make seem to be at odds with most Republicans, and I fear they are not well received because Paul is much more intellectual in his presentation of ideas. He really shined when talking about Iraq. One of his best lines was how "the people who are telling us that there will be a bloodbath if we leave Iraq are the same people who said we'd be greeted as liberators and that oil revenues will pay for the war." When the moderator condescendingly asked how the United States could gather intelligence about terrorism if the FBI and CIA were defunded, Paul didn't miss a beat as he reminded the audience that the billions of dollars the nation has spent on the FBI and CIA still failed to prevent 9-11. "We need intelligent people interpreting our intelligence information" drew wild cheers. He also had some harsh words for Republicans and reminded them of their obligations to the Constitution. Paul certainly had a lot of fans in the crowd and he gave them a lot to cheer about. The other Republicans on the stage probably want Paul to drop out of the race, but his ideas are quite compelling and intriguing. Ron Paul might be at 1% in most national polls, but I get the sense that his real support is far higher. I sincerely hope he continues to be invited to future debates because even though there are no other candidates advocating his positions, I think his genuine appeal is far greater.

What now, Democrats?

I had previously suggested that Democrats boycott Fox to pressure it to improve its journalistic standards, but now I'm not so sure. Perhaps the best way to change the system is to take advantage of the system? The Fox moderators were much tougher than the moderators of CNN, ABC, NBC, and the special interest groups. The Fox moderators also did a good job of allowing news to happen by letting some of the candidates go at each other for an extended period of time. The Democrats need to have a forum in which they can do this as well. Even though they might not like Fox, Fox would at least afford them the opportunity to answer the tough questions they aren't getting at the other debates.

Also, the Democrats would do well to engage in more substantive dialogues in future debates. So far, they have generally avoided attacking each other too harshly and have spoken in platitudes, generalities, and indirect insinuations. Several of the Republicans seemed "presidential" at tonight's debate, but I haven't seen many "presidential" candidates among the Democrats. In a general election, the presidential and substantive Republican will probably be a much more appealing candidate than the cozy and vague Democrat. Obviously, Hillary Clinton probably won't heed this advice as she can afford to maintain the status quo and use that to cruise to the nomination. But if any of the other candidates, including the so-called "second-tier" candidates, want to have a chance at the nomination, they will have to take off their mittens and actually engage the other candidates.

What's up, Fred?

Even though the very first question of the debate was about Fred Thompson and even though he ran a campaign ad shortly before the debate started, I did not really get the sense that his presence was looming overhead. I think part of the problem for Thompson is that some moments of the debate were so compelling and intense that Thompson got overshadowed or forgotten. Also, because of the generalities and empty statements that came from Romney and Giuliani during the debate, I think voters may be a bit more suspicious of Thompson as well. Is he all sizzle and no steak? I cannot stress enough how much Huckabee, McCain, and Paul helped themselves tonight by speaking honestly, not filibustering, and answering questions directly and thoughtfully. Showing off, buzz words, generalities, and canned lines seemed to fall flat tonight. Perhaps Thompson's announcement about his announcement was too cute by half?

Must see TV! The exchange of the night!

Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee had a very powerful and memorable exchange about Iraq. It was a civil debate that showcased both politicians' ability to think on their feet. Here's a rough transcript of what happened:

Mike Huckabee: "We can't be divided. We are one nation under God. It's our obligation to correct our mistake."

Ron Paul: "The Republican party will continue to lose elections because of our foreign policy."

Huckabee: "Losing elections is not as important as losing our honor."

Paul: "When you're in a hole, stop digging! How much do we have to pay to save face?"

By this point, the other candidates were itching to have their say. Sam Brownback was allowed to jump in next, but the intensity that had characterized this exchange would soon be lost.

Final scorecard

John McCain has made himself relevant again.

Mike Huckabee should be taken seriously.

Ron Paul is not going away and continues to intrigue.

Mitt Romney fell flat and lost any momentum that he had been building.

Rudy Giuliani's halo is probably going to wear off because of this debate.

Fred Thompson better blow everyone away because Huckabee is about to fill the role that Thompson is trying to fill.

Sam Brownback is out of his league and is clearly being outclassed by his main rival.

Tom Tancredo is an ideological purist, but he is bit too far to the right to be viable. He's like a conservative Dennis Kucinich.

Duncan Hunter needs to pull a Tommy Thompson and leave.


Iowa Debate Analysis (D)

The 8 Democratic presidential candidates met this morning for a debate on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. While the punching gloves still have yet to come off in any of the debates so far, this debate provided political observers and voters with some clear and strong differences between the candidates. While the tone generally remained civil, one could sense that there was a lot of resentment and frustration percolating beneath the surface. This resentment and frustration stem from the fact that Hillary Clinton is consolidating her support and pulling away from the rest of the pack in the polls, John Edwards' poll numbers are slowly declining, Barack Obama has been the subject of particularly harsh criticism over his foreign policy credentials and his "Blackness," Clinton is seen as the "most experienced" candidate instead of Bill Richardson and Joe Biden, Chris Dodd can't gain any traction, and the feeling among Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel that they are not getting a fair shake in terms of exposure.

Before I begin my assessment of how well each candidate performed, I must say that ABC did a exceptionally tacky job when they introduced the candidates at the beginning of the debate. While their locations on stage were randomly chosen, they were introduced in order of their strength in the most recent Iowa polls. Clinton, Obama, and Edwards were all introduced first with all three at about 26-27% in the polls, Richardson in fourth with 11%, Biden and Kucinich with 2%, Dodd with 1%, and Gravel with "no support registered." I thought this was very unprofessional, unnecessary, and counterproductive. Mike Gravel did his best to put on a smile after being introduced last with "no support registered," but this so-called "introduction" reeked of disrespect. Why invite all the candidates to the debate if you're only going to try and embarrass them on national television?

Another criticism I had was that some candidates got a lot more talk time than the others. According to the Chris Dodd debate talk clock, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama got about twice as much time to express their views than several of the other candidates. I know this has happened before, but it was particularly pronounced this time. Slighting the other candidates on time in addition to the callous way in which they were introduced was bad form.

Regarding Mike Gravel, I cited in a previous post about an excellent column by respected political analyst Stuart Rothenberg that he be excluded from future debates. Gravel has been something of a loose cannon before, but this time he flat out seemed senile. He turned a question about education into a long diatribe about nukes and somehow got Iran confused with Spain. The five minutes he wasted incoherently rambling could have been given to Biden and Richardson so they could continue their excellent, heated exchange about residual troops in Iraq.

Dennis Kucinich was also not amused by the lack of chances he had to participate and turned in the best line of the night. In response to a question about prayer, he said he's spent the past 45 minutes praying for a chance to speak. Dennis Kucinich seems like the Ron Paul of the Democrats. Like Paul and unlike Gravel, Kucinich has an actual platform. He has the ideas, the passion, and the commitment to his ideas. However, he doesn't have the support. So even though he provides a useful voice in the debates, perhaps future debate organizers should consider excluding him as well.

Chris Dodd seems like the next candidate that should either pack it in or be excluded from future debates. He is trying the best he can, but his presentation sounds too senatorial rather than presidential. When I was listening to him, I simply didn't feel inspired or compelled to support him. Unfortunately, the most memorable thing about Chris Dodd at this morning's debate was the fly in his hair towards the end. I expect him to be the object of ridicule on the late night comedy shows and on YouTube. People seem to rank Chris Dodd as 6th in the Democratic candidates' presidential pecking order, but I can't help but wonder if Kucinich is in a stronger position than he is. Even though Kucinich doesn't have much money, he blows Dodd away in terms of passion and compelling others to support him.

As for the main five candidates:

Again, Hillary Clinton won this debate by not losing it. In terms of her substance, she was outdone by some of the other candidates. However, until someone delivers a fatal blow or at least draws blood, she will remain the frontrunner. The issue of campaign contributions from lobbyists is not going away, so she better find a good way to respond to this question in the future. She also seemed to praise Joe Biden a few times regarding his Iraq policy. Could this be her way of thanking him for helping take down Obama in the previous debate in Chicago? If Clinton is the nominee, would she choose Biden as her vice president?

Barack Obama had a good opening line about preparing for the debate by riding the bumper cars at the Iowa State Fair. The media and the other candidates have really been piling on him as of late and the first question this morning was about his "inexperience." Obama's message of "a new way thinking" is clearly resonating and he has developed a good response to his detractors regarding experience: Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney both had tons of experience, but their failures show that judgment is more important than experience. The problem for Obama is that he can't keep reminding voters that "he was against the war from the start." While that may be his ace in the hole, it doesn't change the fact that the United States is in Iraq now and the next president is going to have to find a way out of it. As for Obama's overall debate performance, he did okay. He made no major mistakes and performed well under pressure. He was clearly the villain on stage this morning. Perhaps because Clinton is untouchable, the other candidates are vying for the #2 slot on her ticket? Or do they think they could be the ABH (anybody but Hillary) candidate?

John Edwards is setting a lot of bait for Obama and Clinton, but neither of them is taking it. Interestingly, Edwards defended Obama as a candidate of change, but the problem is that both Obama and Edwards cannot coexist as "change" candidates. If they split the "change" vote, then Clinton will waltz to the nomination. But could an Obama-Edwards or Edwards-Obama ticket be in the works? Such a ticket would be heavy on change, light on experience, and absolutely loaded with enthusiasm in that a true outsider (Obama) would be paired with a populist crusader (Edwards). Such thinking is a long way down the road, however. John Edwards may view Obama and Clinton as his chief rivals, but he may need to check his rear view mirror because Joe Biden and Bill Richardson flexed their foreign policy muscles at the debate quite well and demonstrated their superior grasp of those issues.

Bill Richardson had a much stronger performance in this debate. His previous performances have been lackluster in that he tended to ramble, had poor stage presence, and seemed unfocused at times. However, he was much more coherent today and reminded voters that instead of merely talking about North Korea, Saddam Hussein, and negotiating, he's actually done those things. Richardson also had a clever line about how while Clinton represented experience and Obama represented change, he represented both. He and Joe Biden had an actual debate over policy regarding Iraq that allowed them both to talk about a complex political issue at a level of detail that most of the other candidates haven't done so far. He knows he is prone to gaffes, but reminded the audience that when it mattered, he has come through (on securing the release of hostages, meeting dictators, receiving American servicemembers' remains from abroad, etc.). That was an effective way to remind voters to keep their eye on the ball, much like John Edwards' hair ad at the YouTube debate earlier this summer. In general, Richardson's performance this morning was undoubtedly quite reassuring to restless supporters who were becoming disillusioned or disappointed with his candidacy. I expect his poll numbers to rise.

Joe Biden very well may have won the debate. A lot of the debate focused on Iraq and foreign policy and allowed Biden to showcase his foreign policy credentials. The fact that Obama, Clinton, and Edwards said "they agree with Biden" was no doubt quite validating. It also seems like the other candidates are slowly coming around to the Biden position on Iraq, which gives him added credibility. Even though the Democratic field is oversubscribed right now, I believe Biden is trying to run as the straight-talking veteran statesman. John Edwards should be particularly concerned about Biden because Biden has more experience, more extensive labor credentials, and a more secure grasp of foreign policy. People seem to think Biden is either running for vice president or a cabinet position, but I think he still has a shot at the nomination. He'll need a little bit of help though. First, he'll need Obama and/or Edwards to fall out of favor. If the inexperience questions continue to dog Obama, they will naturally dog Edwards too. This would allow both Richardson and Biden to rise up. Then Biden will need to best Richardson on Iraq. The main difference between the two regarding Iraq is their positions on leaving residual forces there. If Biden can show that it's impossible to take all the troops out and show that Richardson's plan is irresponsible, then he may very well emerge as the ABH candidate.

In a nutshell:

Clinton should prepare to be bloodied in the future. There's not a lot of time left before the Iowa caucuses, so if anyone else wants to run at the top of the ticket, they're going to have to go after her. She did okay in the debate overall, but only won by not losing. She hardly won the actual debate.

Obama seems to be becoming a polarizing figure among Democrats. The naysayers worry about his inexperience. His supporters like his freshness and the way he talks about politics without being political. He likely hasn't been attacked so heavily in a political contest before, but he's holding up reasonably well.

Edwards is vulnerable. Clinton is way ahead of him in the polls, Obama is getting a lot of media attention, and now Richardson and Biden are knocking on the door. Edwards cannot afford to share political turf with Obama.

Richardson was the most improved candidate on stage. He definitely shored up his support today and did a lot to dismantle some of the negative perceptions that had been surrounding his campaign.

Biden probably won the debate. When will people start asking the question that's been on my mind: "When will he catch on? Could Joe Biden, of 'clean' and 'articulate' infamy, actually be a stronger general election candidate than Hillary Clinton?"

Kucinich had a legitimate gripe about the way he was ignored at the debate. Future debate organizers are going to have to do some serious soul-searching about including him because even though he has no chance of winning the nomination, he does provide an interesting, coherent, and useful voice that showcases the diversity of thought within the Democratic Party. If he's going to be included in future debates, they need to give him fair time to express his views. Otherwise, they shouldn't bother with him. Treating him like political window dressing is bad form.

Dodd was not the invisible candidate on stage today, which was good. However, he was also the generic Democrat on stage, which was not good. And unfortunately, in politics, image and perception matter. Fairly or unfairly, the fly in his hair will be what people remember the most about his performance, rather than his actual policy positions.

Gravel has participated in one too many debates and should end his campaign now before he further embarrasses himself. He should not be invited to any future debates because he serves no useful purpose.


Winnow the Minnows

Stuart Rothenberg's latest piece about how there are too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to the presidential debates is a must read. I alluded to the crux of Rothenberg's point recently about narrowing the GOP field, but he expresses this much more forcefully than I ever could as a political novice.

Basically, Rothenberg believes it's time for a big chunk of the field to drop out of the race because they have absolutely no chance of being elected. Specifically, he cites Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, Duncan Hunter, Mike Gravel, and Dennis Kucinich as candidates who are only needlessly crowding the stage and should no longer be a part of the debates or the national presidential dialogue.

You could give Ron Paul and Mike Gravel an hour of free TV time from now until Christmas and they still wouldn't have a snowball's chance in Hell of being nominated by their respective parties.
He makes a very good point.

At the recent AFL-CIO debate in Chicago, Dennis Kucinich probably had the best performance of the evening in terms of substance, wooing the crowd, and the passion of his responses. He was probably the most supportive candidate of the labor movement on stage that evening and did not equivocate. But do you honestly think the Teamsters Union or the AFL-CIO is going to endorse Dennis Kucinich? It's not going to happen.

The same could be said for Duncan Hunter. Even though he seems to be the right match for conservative voters on almost every issue, he is stuck at 1% in almost every poll and even fared worse than nonparticipants in the recent Ames Straw Poll. There is no way he will receive the nomination, so there's no point in having him take up valuable time at future debates.
The point of debates, after all, is to help voters decide who they favor for President, not to give everyone who wants to be President exposure.
Again, another good point. Although everybody has the right to run for president, not everyone should be taken seriously enough to warrant presidential debate coverage. Mike Gravel adds nothing to the debates except color (and even that is becoming tiresome), but presidential debates should be much more substantive and consist of much more serious candidates. I will be old enough to run for president in 2012, but I am not a credible candidate. I don't have any political contacts, nor do I have any field offices in the early primary states. I have no money, no consultants, and no campaign staff. So why should I be given so many platforms to get my message out?

Ron Paul is an interesting case. I was not completely on board with Rothenberg regarding excluding him from future debates at first simply because there are no other candidates in the race who are saying the same things he is. I can't recall the last Republican candidate who ran as a Barry Goldwater libertarian conservative and generated such strong support online. His views are particularly interesting to listen to, but he's stuck at 1% in the polls just like Kucinich and Hunter. He performed fairly well at the Ames Straw Poll, but placed behind every candidate who actually participated in the event other than Duncan Hunter. However...
The long shots have raised money, put together experienced campaign teams and have at least some chance of being nominated. They certainly deserve more time on the national stage, while the Tancredo's and Kucinich's of the world have had their moment to make their cases and push their issues.
And that makes a lot of sense. People who follow politics obviously know who Ron Paul is by now, but it's not helping. Dennis Kucinich has run on a pure liberal platform before and lost badly. Voters didn't support him before, and they are not supporting him now no matter how much his rhetoric and positions may resonate with people, even if only privately (such as impeaching Vice President Cheney). So maybe Rothenberg is right about Ron Paul after all.

The people who are the most hurt by including these "no shots" (as Rothenberg put it) in the debates and national dialogues are people like Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson on the Democratic side, and Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback on the Republican side. At least those candidates have a credible campaign apparatus and campaign cash. But there's too much "noise" for them to break through. Huckabee caught a huge break in the Ames Straw Poll because that gave him so much favorable media coverage.

The people who benefit the most from including these "no shots" in the debates are the ones at the very top of the field. Clinton and Giuliani in particular should be beaming with joy every time they step on the stage with gadfly candidates like Hunter and Gravel standing a few feet away from them.

Mike Gravel was not missed at the AFL-CIO debate. He could have participated, but failed to complete the required questionnaire they sent him prior to the debate. Future debate sponsors would do the presidential nomination process a great service by taking things a step further and keeping the no shots away from the long shots and big shots.

At some point, voters, the media, and debate organizers have to get serious about this. Now would be a good time to start.


Debate Analysis (D)

Yet another Democratic debate took place tonight in Chicago. All the candidates except for Mike Gravel participated in the forum. This forum was the most contentious one by far in my estimation, as the kid gloves came off and blood was drawn. Much will be written about this forum in the coming days, but here's my analysis.

Hillary Clinton: She made no major gaffes, although she may have made a small mistake when she got fired up and said "I'm your girl." The crowd loved it, but if she's the Democratic nominee, that little remark will inevitably be used for Republican fundraising. The main thing about Clinton and these debates is that she automatically wins by not losing. Because of the crowded field and her frontrunner status, she has little need to engage any of her opponents, thus allowing her to stay above the fray and look presidential. Having said that, she will eventually have to answer questions about contributions from lobbyists. It's a legitimate issue that feeds directly into Obama and Edwards' criticism of her as a "Washington insider."

Barack Obama: I watched the MSNBC post-debate coverage and they generally viewed Obama as one of the winners of the debate. However, I think he merely did okay. His delivery seemed unconfident at times and he seemed a bit distracted. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden were clearly irritated about his lack of Washington experience and took the fight to him tonight. While he acquitted himself reasonably well (especially when he pivoted from Pakistan to Iraq by turning Dodd's Iraq vote against him), he runs the risk of winning over the larger public while turning the Washington crowd away from his campaign. Whether that's a good thing or not remains to be seen, but I get the sense that people are now viewing Obama just like they view Clinton: either they like him or they don't. The Barry Bonds question was surprisingly revealing, as his answer to it was anything but courageous.

John Edwards: Edwards was supposed to own this debate, seeing that he's trying to position himself as labor's candidate. However, I don't believe he connected with voters tonight. Edwards seemed to have a lot slogans, but not a lot of solutions. It also seems like he has gotten much angrier in recent weeks, perhaps out of frustration over his gradual slide in the polls. If going after Clinton for accepting lobbying money is the best he can do, he very well might not even make it to Iowa next January. The Edwards camp should be very worried.

Bill Richardson: Richardson showed his humorous side a few times tonight, especially when he joked that he was looking forward to labor's continued financial support. Unfortunately for Richardson, he didn't get many chances to get his message out tonight, so he seemed a bit lost in the shuffle. He did remind voters of his vast experience, but other than that, Richardson was fairly invisible tonight.

Joe Biden: Again, Biden sounded presidential--perhaps moreso than any other candidate on stage. He subtly corrected Obama by reminding voters that Canada has a prime minister (rather than a president) and went for the jugular against Obama and Edwards by talking about how "what they did in the last two years or in their six year Senate term" pales in comparison to his lengthy Senate record. Richardson, Biden, and Dodd are competing directly with each other for the veteran alternative to Clinton. Richardson is better positioned in terms of cash and polling, but Biden seems to be a better speaker and more explosive. He didn't do any favors by essentially ignoring the average voter's question towards the end of the forum, however, about mine safety.

Chris Dodd: Has Dodd finally arrived? This was the first forum in which Dodd actually made news. I thought he dressed Obama down on the Pakistan issue and clearly showed that experience matters. However, Black voters may have been turned off by Dodd because of this exchange. They don't like the idea of an old White senator lecturing a younger, intelligent Black one. Dodd still comes across more senatorial than presidential, but to his credit, at least he did something to make voters remember him tonight.

Dennis Kucinich: In my opinion, Kucinich won this debate in a rout. He even upstaged John Edwards when he spoke bluntly about China, health care, and eliminating NAFTA. It seemed like only Kucinich and Biden answered the debate questions with minimal fluff, so Kucinich gets props for that. His line about digging a hole to China was probably the funniest one of the night and he told the other candidates what Democratic voters wish they had been saying all along--to do the job they were elected to do last November. At this stage, Kucinich is still not going to win the nomination, but I think he gained the respect of a lot of voters tonight.

In a nutshell:

Clinton is still running out the clock. Soon she will get so far ahead in the polls that nobody will be able to catch her. Aside from obviously benefiting Clinton, I think this also benefits Dodd, Biden, and Richardson because the gap between them and Obama and Edwards is not as large as the gap between Obama/Edwards and Clinton. There will be a Hillary alternative, but now it seems more plausible that this alternative will not be restricted to Obama or Edwards.

Edwards is in serious trouble. His performances seem angry and erratic as of late. He was outshone by Kucinich as far as satisfying labor.

Obama is a force to be reckoned with, but is no longer feared. People are challenging him openly now. He better get used to it.

Richardson is running in place. He's well positioned, but didn't do himself any favors at the debate.

Biden did very well again. He should be feeling good about his chances, but it really depends on his fundraising.

Dodd finally showed up, but it might be too little too late for him. He has to hope that all the other candidates somehow become unacceptable to voters, thus leaving him as the unbloodied alternative. Think generic Democrat.

Kucinich encroached on Edwards' turf and stole a lot of his thunder. Earlier voters looked at Kucinich and said "Why?" I can't help but wonder if more people are now asking "Why not?"


After the Debate (D)

After having a bit of time to let Monday's Democratic presidential debate sink in, I'm ready to chime in with my own assessment of how well the candidates did, how they should be feeling, and where they should go from here.

Hillary Clinton: Clinton has done a superb job of moving to the left without burning her bridges with moderates and even conservatives regarding Iraq. The fact that she voted for the Iraq war authorization should have doomed her in the primary, at least according to many pundits. However, now there is not much daylight between her and Obama regarding getting out. Being able to pull this off is a significant political feat. In the debate, she did an excellent job of appearing competent, resolute, thoughtful, and even approachable. Simply put, she looked presidential. Her performance will continue to allay the fears voters have that she is a shrill, polarizing candidate. Perhaps some of the perceived hatred towards her is simply a kneejerk reaction to the Hillary "brand?" (This is similar to the thoughts evoked by hearing the names of other famous people with whom we simply call by their first names: "Brittney, Paris, and Rush." Either you love them or you hate them, right?) Anyway, it seems now like the more people hear her speak in the debates, the more comfortable they become with her. She did not win the debate by any means, but the most important point is that she did well enough and probably beat expectations. One point cannot be denied, however. Hillary Clinton is an extremely talented and gifted politician, and this was reflected in the debate on Tuesday.

Best moment: Her smackdown of Barack Obama regarding talking with leaders of rogue nations "in the first year of their presidency." Even though Obama's response was sufficient, especially for the left-leaning Democrats, Clinton's "I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes" remark displayed a sense of executive cunning that made Obama look like a greenhorn. Seeing that Obama is seen as her chief rival for the nomination, this was exchange was political manna from the heavens.

Worst moment: Clinton's avoidance of the term "liberal" to describe herself was both predictable and calculated. "Modern progressive" sounds a bit PC and reminds voters of how cautious she tries to be. It was a response that reeked of Clintonian triangulation that flusters Democrats. No doubt Republicans will have a field day with that on talk radio as they blast it as elitist, PC bombast.

Immediate threat: Obama is obviously Clinton's biggest threat simply because of the enthusiasm surrounding his campaign and the fact that it makes the subtext of "Clinton vs. Obama" "experience vs. optimism." Clinton can survive without going on offense, but Obama does not have that luxury.

Indispensable ally: The sheer size of the Democratic field works to Clinton's advantage. The longer this race is between Clinton and 7 other candidates, the easier it is for Clinton to win the nomination. She clearly benefits from a larger field because it makes it harder for the other candidates to distinguish themselves and challenge her.

Where to go from here: Clinton should pound the "experience" issue. Again, I must stress that Obama did not make a fatal mistake. However, Clinton was able to successfully turn his remarks into her advantage. Knowing that "inexperience" is Obama's greatest weakness, this exchange provides a perfect example of this. She does not need to engage the other candidates. The general political rule is that you go on offense when you're running behind. However, pressing Obama's "naivity" could do a good job of stalling Obama or sending him into a tailspin. She also needs to be on the lookout for a new "ABH (Anybody But Hillary)" candidate in the event that Obama fades.

Barack Obama: One cannot deny the enthusiasm people have about Obama's campaign. Clearly, he has tapped into something that other candidates haven't. However, Obama seems unable to meet the lofty expectations people have of him. When he opens his mouth, they expect a near-religious experience. However, many of them are getting the sense that there's not much there. Is Obama underwhelming? Has he peaked too soon? In the debate, Obama did okay, but not great. Perhaps the harshest attack came from the grenade-lobbing Mike Gravel, but he weathered it nicely. However, a more fatal exchange took place later in the debate between him and Clinton. My sense is that voters really want Obama to succeed because of what an Obama nomination would say about the Democratic Party and the United States (if he wins it all in November). However, he does not quite seem to have what it takes in terms of policy. The "what does he stand for?" and "is he experienced enough?" questions were not erased because of his performance on Monday. Again, Obama did okay at the debate. However, when expectations are as high as they are for him, "okay" isn't good enough.

Best moment: Obama had a good line about withdrawing troops from Iraq: "[paraphrased quote] the time for thinking about how to get out of Iraq was before voting to authorize the war." That reminded voters of how Hillary's "experience" still led to poor "judgment." Her war vote and his early opposition to it are two of his strongest weapons against Clinton and he is wise to press them.

Worst moment: See Clinton's "best moment." Basically, this exchange caught Obama off guard and made Clinton look presidential at his expense. The high population of Cuban-Americans in Florida probably wrote off Obama bigtime when he said he'd meet with Castro. Those voters vote the issue, rather than the party. And Obama is on the wrong side of that.

Immediate threat: Himself. Obama has it all. He has good looks, a compelling biography, the gift of rhetoric, a legion of fired up volunteers, and a solid campaign apparatus. However, the main attraction is failing to live up to expectations in a lot of people's minds. Obama seems to be a "yes, but" candidate in that voters generally seem to like him and respond well to him, but their support is a bit tepid. Are voters dating Obama now and preparing to marry another candidate later?

Indispensable ally: The media. The media are doing their best to frame the Democratic race as "Clinton vs. Obama." This keeps Obama's name in the news and may encourage new voters to figure out what "Obama" is all about. This increased exposure also allows Obama more opportunities to get his message out. And in the event that the media go overboard, Obama could always turn the media into a useful foil, just like he did when he railed against them "talking about how he looked in a swimsuit."

Where to go from here: Obama needs to confront the experience issue. Highlighting his work as a community organizer is not going to satisfy these concerns. He's going to have to flesh out one meaningful policy proposal, including how much it costs, how he plans to pay for it, why it's necessary, who it will benefit, and how it will be implemented. This is not an issue he can dodge for much longer. Granted, other candidates haven't really done this either. But Obama should think of this as a necessary test that is unique to his candidacy.

John Edwards: The air is slowly deflating from the balloon that is Edwards' candidacy. He has had a rough couple of weeks, courtesy of self-inflicted wounds (e.g., the "haircut") and attacks from others (e.g., Ann Coulter and the proxy war between Elizabeth Edwards and Bill Clinton). I've read several debate reviews that said Edwards performed well and was one of the "winners," but I must disagree. I thought his attacks were too weak or too indirect to be effective (e.g., "we don't need triangulation"), his empathy seemed contrived, and he failed to have a breakout moment. John Edwards' campaign is in a lot of trouble, and this debate didn't help.

Best moment: Edwards looked classy when he said that if a person didn't want to vote for Clinton because of her gender or Obama because of his race, he doesn't want his vote. I really thought he responded to that question ("Is Clinton 'woman' enough? Is Obama 'Black' enough?") in the best possible way a White male could.

Worst moment: Why in the world did John Edwards make that stupid remark about Clinton's pink jacket? Yes, it was a minor issue, but that's the kind of self-inflicted wound that Edwards can ill afford to make. It turned the crowd against him and in favor of Clinton who could play the victim. And it reminded female voters everywhere about how males may treat them diminutively both at home and at work. Women are sensitive about issues related to their appearance and don't want people telling them they are unattractive or their clothes are no good. And the fact that this happened at the end of the date means it's more likely that this gaffe was the last memory people had of his performance at the debate. Oops.

Immediate threat: Bill Richardson. Richardson has been methodically chipping away at the daylight between the two candidates in the polls. Richardson is now running third or tied for third in New Hampshire, for example. And this is leading to several stories in the media that talk about "Edwards jostling with Richardson for third place," "Edwards tied with Richardson in latest poll," and "Richardson replacing Edwards in the top tier." And when one looks at experience while comparing Edwards and Richardson, Richardson will win every time. If Richardson can overtake Edwards in an early primary state, Edwards is through.

Indispensable ally: Elizabeth Edwards. She speaks passionately and is highly sought after. In light of "Jacketgate," Edwards may need her to help smooth over tensions with female voters. Also, because Edwards is portrayed as a "rich trial lawyer" whose convictions "change with the polls," putting his wife on the campaign trail may serve to humanize him. Perhaps she can help him improve his standing among females by picking them off from Clinton's camp.

Where to go from here: Edwards needs a new issue. Even though poverty has been the main focus of his campaign so far, the debate audience cheered wildly when he grew angry and passionate as he railed against America's failed health care system and lack of health insurance. His anger seemed genuine too. That was a moment when he truly connected with average people. The poverty issue just doesn't seem to evoke such passion. Health insurance and access may be a new good direction for him.

Bill Richardson: Richardson did a much better job in this debate than he did in the previous ones, although he still doesn't sound as polished or as disciplined. However, there was no getting around the fact that Richardson is an exceptionally well-qualified candidate. And he made sure voters knew he was a governor (an executive), rather than a senator (a talker). Voters who worry about the collective lack of experience Clinton, Obama, and Edwards have may find Richardson to be an appealing alternative. Look for his standing in the polls to continue their slow rise, as he easily beat the low expectations his previous debate performances have created.

Best moment: The way Richardson spoke about education and No Child Left Behind connected with voters. I saw the post-debate stories about focus groups and dial-testing and they all agreed that Richardson evoked the most favorable responses when he talked about this. He gave an itemized list of what's wrong and how to fix it. That take-charge executive style of speaking really served him well.

Worst moment: Joe Biden challenged Richardson's Iraq withdrawal plan on the basis that it is not feasible to transport so many troops so quickly. This may have made some voters wonder if his "no residual forces" plan was really well thought out or if it was more of a slogan to appease the antiwar left.

Immediate threat: Joe Biden is probably the second most qualified candidate in the race. Biden is also the only candidate that can stand up to Richardson when it comes to foreign policy. Because of the force with which Biden speaks and how thoughtful his arguments are, Richardson must be careful not to let Biden encroach on his turf. After all, Richardson is supposed to be the "foreign policy" candidate, right? If voters believe Biden provides a foreign policy alternative, that could hurt Richardson.

Indispensable ally: John Edwards is making Bill Richardson look good, especially because the two of them are being mentioned together more frequently. The top-tier candidates receive a lot more media attention than the second-tier candidates. But because of Richardson's momentum, he is overtaking Edwards for the third slot. So stories of Edwards' decline are also yielding stories of Richardson's ascent.

Where to go from here: If Obama and Edwards continue on their current path (downward), Richardson could very well emerge as the Clinton alternative, or the ABH candidate. His job interview ads are clearly resonating and the depth of his knowledge of world affairs and executive issues is piercing through his lackluster debating skills. Could slow and steady be the ticket to winning the race?

Joe Biden: Biden turned in yet another superior debate performance. There is no denying the fact that for all his quirks and verbal gaffes, this is a very intelligent man. The way he talked about Iraq and why we can't withdraw displayed a level of thoughtfulness and engagement that voters around America could only wish the current president had. His honesty and painful truths also came across well. This provided a good contrast to Obama (even if it was only implicit) because it shows that we are living in a dangerous world with no easy solutions and that rhetoric and sparring over past votes ignores the perils facing the nation now. In my estimation, Biden won this debate in a rout.

Best moment: As stated above, the way he dissected the Iraq and Darfur issues clearly showed that Biden understands the world in which we live. He sounded authoritative, but not angry. I wonder how many Democrats in the audience wish he had run in '04 when there was a much weaker field of candidates?

Worst moment: Biden did not really have any bad moments during the debate, but the way he tried joking about Dennis Kucinich at the end was a bit off-putting. ("I don't like a damn thing about him.") For someone who is still recovering from the stigma of having a mouth that is out of control, he should be a bit more careful. Biden is not through yet, but he doesn't have much margin for error.

Immediate threat: Bill Richardson is occupying the same territory that Biden wants to occupy in terms of his experience, competence, and ability to get things done. Richardson has also provided a blueprint for how a middle of the pack candidate can vault into the top tier. There are still too many candidates in the race for Biden to get media ink. Richardson began to get more ink only recently. But if Richardson weren't in the race, Biden's ascent and passion would be the story. Richardson is to Biden what Obama and Edwards are to Gore. He needs the other guy to stumble before he has his opening.

Indispensable ally: Interestingly enough, Bill Richardson is also Joe Biden's ally in that they can both double team Obama and Edwards in terms of their youth and lack of experience. I've even seen a few people asking about a Richardson-Biden ticket or even having Biden as Secretary of State. This is all favorable press that Richardson helped generate. If Richardson is the "experience" candidate, then Biden is the "experience" alternative.

Where to go from here: Biden's future really depends on fundraising. I've seen campaign e-mails and other pundits raving about Biden's debate performance, so perhaps a "Biden boomlet" will take place. He's doing everything he possibly can, but there's just too much going on and there are too many candidates for him to break out. Perhaps he should call for issues debates in which all the candidates get together and talk about only one issue at a time. In other words, there could be an Iraq debate, an economy debate, an immigration debate, etc. An Iraq debate would be particularly beneficial for Biden.

Chris Dodd: Dodd is saying all the right things, he seems like a likable candidate, he is experienced, and he is a good speaker. But he's not catching any traction whatsoever. It took me a while, but I've finally figured it out. Dodd comes across as senatorial, rather than presidential. It's not his message, it's his presentation. He just doesn't seem to inspire or excite voters. So he gets lost in the shuffle. Monday's debate is no exception. He made no mistakes in the debate and seemed to be in line with most Democrats on most issues. However, for someone who is so far behind, Dodd lost by not winning. In other words, Dodd has to compel people to support him. And until he does that, people will continue to ignore him. When he speaks, one gets the impression that he is talking to the debate moderator, rather than to the voters. That's his biggest problem.

Best moment: Do you remember anything that Dodd said?

Worst moment: Again, do you remember anything that Dodd said?

Immediate threat: His presentation. Dodd is vanilla ice cream, white bread, and corn flakes all rolled into one. There's the Hillary, who needs no introduction; Obama, who is new and fresh; Edwards, who was the 2004 vice presidential nominee; Richardson, who has the funky job interview ads; Kucinich, the "peacenik" liberal (that's the caricature); and now Biden, the forceful foreign policy authority. What is Dodd? A senator.

Indispensable ally: Perhaps Dodd benefits from being the invisible candidate because this allows him to fly under the radar undetected. The only problem is, Bill Richardson was doing the same thing and is finally getting some buzz. Where is Dodd's buzz? At least he can benefit from exceeding expectations simply because there are no expectations at all right now.

Where to go from here: I'm really not sure what Dodd can do to improve his lot. He's going to need help from the other candidates in order to succeed. Perhaps other candidates will have to flame out or keep wailing on each other so much that voters get sick of all the candidates and leave the untouched Dodd as a new option. Dodd should also call for issues-oriented debates to help him demonstrate his grasp of policy at the expense of making Obama and Edwards look unready for prime time.

Dennis Kucinich: I thought Kucinich did a good job at the debate, as he was clearly unafraid to say things and express positions that the other more viable candidates don't have the political flexibility to say, such as unequivocally supporting gay marriage. He might not be the nominee, but at least he can serve as the liberal conscience for other candidates.

Best moment: "Strength through peace." To Democrats and war-weary independents, that sounds so much more appealing than "peace through strength."

Worst moment: Kucinich seemed a bit too eager to plug that text messaging service to end the war. Anderson Cooper rebuffed him by saying "this was not time for a political ad." Kucinich repeated the text messaging service during his "minivideo," which was a wasted opportunity to generate interest in his campaign. Is Kucinich running to be president, or is he running to end the war in Iraq? As for the slavery reparations question, that was an obvious low moment. However, it wasn't Kucinich's fault simply because the question came from a random citizen and the moderator asked him to respond to it. (Imagine if Clinton had to respond to that...)

Immediate threat: Until the media take him and his positions seriously, Kucinich is going nowhere.

Indispensable ally: His unimposing demeanor makes it difficult for other candidates to attack him. Attacking the "nonviolent, antiwar, liberal pushover" is not a good way to generate positive press about you or your campaign, right?

Where to go from here: If Kucinich keeps holding the other candidates' feet to the fire regarding the war, he may become a kingmaker. Other candidates don't want to engage him because he may become a gadfly candidate to them or because his rhetorical purity may put them on the defensive.

Mike Gravel: He did not do anything but take up valuable time, embarrass himself, and try to take another candidate down with him. His demeanor was angry, overly aggressive, and completely unnecessary. I really don't know what his platform is, as he seems to spend most of his time talking about how "electing the other candidates means maintaining the status quo." So, is he an advocate or a candidate? Or does he only want to lob grenades?

Best moment: In a moment of graciousness, Gravel took the time to thank one of the You Tube questioners for directing a question specifically to him. That was one of the few times when he did not seem to be foaming at the mouth.

Worst moment: Gravel tried to take down Obama unprovoked, but did not have the facts to back it up. This came off ugly and was in bad form.

Immediate threat: Future debate sponsors and organizers will probably take steps to exclude him from future debates. So they are a bigger threat to him than any issue or any candidate.

Where to go from here: Out the exit. Preferably sooner.

If I had to rank the candidates by how well they performed, I'd say the order would be:

1. Joe Biden (maybe he'll finally catch a spark)
2. Bill Richardson (the buzz about his candidacy is growing)
3. Hillary Clinton (she wins by not losing and continues to run out the clock)
4. Barack Obama (storm clouds are on the horizon; is the love affair over?)
5. Dennis Kucinich (his candor is refreshing)
6. John Edwards (once his Iowa support is gone, he's finished)
7. Chris Dodd (voters still don't know who this guy is)
8. Mike Gravel (whatever)


Some advice for CNN

I am writing this post more as a student of journalism, rather than a political analyst.

The CNN/You Tube debate tonight was fresh, and the format will be here to stay. Many of the questions were pointed and reflected the concerns of millions of Americans. However, I also believe there was a lot of wasted potential and a few issues that simply should be fixed:

1. There should be no excuse for technical problems at these debates. Why in the world were the microphones cutting off in the middle of the candidates' responses? Did anyone not conduct a sound check? This is not the first debate CNN has sponsored that was plagued by technical problems. The CNN brand is supposed to reflect the gold standard of journalism. However, having microphone problems (again) makes it look like the junior varsity squad is in charge of production.

2. Mike Gravel should not be invited to any further debates. He serves no purpose other than to vent and waste everyone's time. As I predicted in my previous post, I anticipated him trying to take somebody else down with him. Obama almost got caught in the crossfire, but Gravel bungled the attack, much to Obama's relief. However, all in all, Gravel clearly sounds angry, rather than presidential, and is only good for making the other Democrats look moderate by comparison. He is not a credible candidate, nor is he a viable one.

3. Whose idea was it to leave all that blank space on the screen when the actual You Tube videos were being played? It was quite difficult to see some of the videos, especially those that had no voiceovers and relied solely on printed words on the screen or placards. There was so much wasted space there. Either enlarge the video size or cut out the dead space. Why not put the submitter's name and location under the video and then enlarge both? Having them side by side created a lot of empty space.

4. When a candidate veers off topic and reverts to his or her talking points, the moderator should cut the microphone and move onto the next question for the next candidate. Chris Dodd and John Edwards were especially guilty of this. Anderson Cooper did his best to rein in the candidates, but they were determined to stay on message. This violated the request mentioned at the very beginning--that candidates actually respond to the questions directly rather than revert to their stump speeches. The candidates knew they could get away with violating this rule, and they did.

5. Questions that have no real merit or have nothing to do with policy positions or agendas should not be included. What was the point of the question from the guy holding up a quarter and asking what "in God we trust" means? What was the point of the "is Hillary woman enough" and "is Obama Black enough" questions? To feature these questions is to legitimize them. But these are not real issues at all and serve no real purpose other than to reinforce class and racial divisions, which benefits nobody.

Having said that, credit should be given where credit is due:

1. Anderson Cooper did a reasonably good job of balancing talk time among the candidates while giving more credible candidates a bit more time to respond. Mike Gravel complained a bit about not having enough talk time, but I think the audience appreciated this particular imbalance.

2. Most of the questions asked were sharp and put the candidates in a bind. Credit should be given to the team that sifted through the thousands and thousands of submissions. I found myself criticizing the candidates for not answering some of the questions directly because I knew some of the questions were too hot for them to handle. The question about sending US troops to Darfur was a perfect example of this.

3. Including a few of the lighter videos added a nice touch. Sprinkling a few of these questions throughout the debate helped keep the audience interested and the candidates loose. This even led to a few memorable moments, such as Biden saying the people of Tennessee were probably embarrassed by the man with the exaggerated Southern accent who asked if their feelings were hurt by stories of Al Gore's possible entry into the race.

4. Anderson Cooper did his best to pin down some of the candidates when they tried to dodge some of the questions. Credit goes to Cooper for trying to cut through the spin and political-speak and get a clear answer to an honest question.

5. This format worked and is likely here to stay. I think this format is a triumph for citizen journalists and will definitely make politics more accessible to young people and average people. It gives voters a real sense of ownership and control to know that they can directly influence events such as this.

Final grade: B+


The You Tube Test (D)

The Democratic presidential candidates will debate once again at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. This debate will be unique in that all the questions in the debate will come from private citizens who submitted them via You Tube. This format will be a potential minefield for the candidates because some of the questions may catch them off guard and make it difficult for them to revert to their talking points in their responses.

This debate is significant for another reason as well, in my estimation. This debate marks the last best chance for some of the candidates to right their ships. Even though the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries are still six months away, more and more people are beginning to tune into the political process and make up their minds about who they do and do not like.

Hillary Clinton: Hillary Clinton enters the debate in as enviable a position as anyone, especially after her high profile battle with the Pentagon. Clinton has been able to bolster her defense credentials and put the "woman" issue to rest. Perhaps her biggest weakness remains her biggest strength--her last name. She has no reason to take any bold positions, as all she has to do is look competent and sound approachable. As the leader of the pack, she has little need to go on offense against the other candidates.

The perception she wants to create: Clinton wants to solidify her position among anti-war liberals regarding the war. It seems like she has gotten a free pass in terms of her Iraq War vote. Her "I take responsibility for my vote" explanations seem to have served her well enough. In short, she wants to look like an antiwar candidate with a backbone that will allow her to stand up to the president. Look for her to challenge Bush's Iraq policy more forcefully in the debate. Also look for her to bolster her street cred among Black voters, many of whom are in Obama's camp.

The questions she wants to put to rest: Clinton has to put to rest questions about her electability in the general contest next November. While she definitely has the inside track to securing the Democratic nomination, she will start the general election off with a lot of unpersuadable voters against her. She has to allay concerns that she is not as polarizing as her name indicates.

What she definitely wants to avoid: Clinton's standing in the polls has slowly been on an uptick as voters become more comfortable with the idea of a second Clinton presidency. Complaints about her harshness seem to have been replaced by complaints about her wonkiness, which is a definite step in the right direction. She needs to avoid any hint of arrogance because that would remind voters of the open mic gaffe from a few days ago and make people question exactly why Clinton is the "inevitable candidate."

Margin of error: As the front-runner, she has a lot of room in which to maneuver. She doesn't have to hit any home runs, but she does need to keep belting out those singles and doubles. If she's able to do this, she will continue to gain inertia and make it even more difficult for her to be beaten. She doesn't need to take any risks during this debate, as the status quo is probably good enough for her.

Barack Obama: Barack Obama has not had a good couple of weeks. I get the sense that despite his incredible fundraising, some of the bloom is off of his rose. His fundraising prowess does not seem to be translating into support at the polls, unfortunately. And while Hillary Clinton was going toe to toe with the Pentagon and the State Department, Obama was on defense against Mitt Romney about sex education in kindergarten. He also implored the United States to send its military to Darfur to stop the genocide there, but recently said that the goal of the United States military in Iraq should not be to prevent genocide there. Contradictions and rookie mistakes such as this make this debate far more important for Obama than it is for Clinton simply because those doubts about his readiness for primetime are creeping back up. Could Obama '08 be Dean '04?

The perception he wants to create: Simply put, Obama needs to show that he knows how to lead. His inspirational language has gotten everyone's attention, but they will not commit to him for too much longer if they believe he's trying to get by solely on optimism and vision. Voters have been patient so far, but the expectations for him are a bit higher than they are for someone like John Edwards, who is similarly inexperienced. Look for Obama to put forth some new policy proposals with reasonably fine details about how he plans to implement them. He has successfully introduced himself to voters so far, but now they are impatiently waiting for the second act. Obama needs to show voters that there's more to him than lofty rhetoric and platitudes.

The questions he wants to put to rest: As I said earlier, Obama would be wise to squelch those nagging doubts people have about his inexperience. If Democratic voters are hungry for competence, then Obama is in trouble. If he is unable to do this, look for his support to plummet. Then he'll become one of the leading candidates for the vice presidency.

What he definitely wants to avoid: The genocide contradiction I listed earlier is potentially fatal because it strikes at the heart of why so many people have such reservations about him. Should he issue a mea culpa? Will he be able to tap dance his way around reconciling those two statements about Iraq and Darfur? He also needs to avoid ceding any further ground among Blacks to Clinton because this could lead to a rash of bad press about "why aren't Blacks supporting Obama?"

Margin of error: Very, very small. The status quo will not work for Obama for too much longer. The last thing he needs is for Democratic voters to view him as a "yeah, but" candidate. He needs to be forceful, he needs to be thorough, and he needs to be a leader. The vision thing won't work this time.

John Edwards: Like Obama, John Edwards is in trouble. His entire campaign now rests solely on Iowa, seeing that he is running third in his home state of South Carolina and fourth in New Hampshire behind Bill Richardson. He has already been defined by the media and his political opponents as a lightweight rich kid who can't stand up for himself. He can thank his wife for that (see her recent spat with Ann Coulter on MSNBC's Hardball). One gets the sense that there's really not much reason to vote for Edwards because he seems to be an empty shell who is having diminished credibility talking about "his" issue (poverty). John Edwards needs to stop the bleeding because if he loses his support in Iowa, his campaign is finished.

The perception he wants to create: John Edwards needs to neutralize Obama. He can do this by playing up his own limited experience. He also needs to use his geography to his advantage. Surprisingly, this is something he hasn't talked about much on the campaign trail. Edwards should be running much stronger in South Carolina and in other Southern states. He should portray himself as someone who knows what rural and Southern voters think about. He should portray himself as someone who understands Southern history and why Southerners have such a distrust for the government and for the North. Voters already know he's the anti-poverty candidate, but voters looking for "hope" are already in Obama's camp. Edwards needs to define himself differently. A "Southerner" may be the last best way to do this.

The questions he wants to put to rest: Edwards could portray himself as an acceptable alternative to Obama if he demonstrates a bit of policy heft. Fortunately for him, Obama is receiving the brunt of scrutiny about inexperience, so Edwards can look like a veteran by comparison. However, he is still dogged by the inexperience question and needs to prove his critics wrong.

What he definitely wants to avoid: John Edwards should consider himself lucky if he doesn't give late night comedians any additional fodder about his "rich kid" lifestyle. Voters will not take him seriously if the first thing they think about with him is an expensive haircut. Edwards should confront any questions related to this caricature head on and remind voters that there are a lot of other more important issues they should be focusing on. Trying to say that other candidates are rich too or making a lame joke about it could prove fatal.

Margin of error: Like Obama, John Edwards is skating on thin ice. He runs the risk of slipping into the second tier and having his campaign come to an unceremonious, premature end. John McCain may have the fortitude and the sea legs to rise from the ashes and save his campaign, but John Edwards might not. Caricatures are destroying him right now.

Bill Richardson: Bill Richardson probably has the most to gain from this debate. Aside from Hillary Clinton, he enters the debate in the best position. Momentum is definitely with him, as he has seen his standing in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls improve considerably after a successful advertising campaign. Democratic voters who will not vote for Clinton under any circumstances and who seek a bit more heft than Obama and Edwards are demonstrating should be Richardson's prime target. He also has the ability to scoop up moderate and conservative Democrats based on his positions on taxes and guns. No other candidate can credibly talk about these issues without turning off a large segment of the general electorate.

The perception he wants to create: Bill Richardson needs to show that there is a bit of humor and likability to go along with his obvious intellect and experience. His performances in the debates so far have been lukewarm at best, as he seemed confused or even angry because of his poor stage presence. If he can improve the way he connects with voters on television, he may be able to pick off some of Obama's supporters who have reservations about his inexperience, but want to send a message about the Democratic Party's commitment to being friendly to ethnic minorities. Richardson also needs to remind moderate and conservative Democrats that he is their candidate. If he can remind them that all the other candidates are running to his left, he could see his standing in the polls continue to improve.

The questions he wants to put to rest: Richardson has been dogged by questions about his "evolving" positions and his lack of focus in the debates. He is also not good at speaking in sound bytes, which is a mixed blessing. However, voters would like for their presidents to be a bit more telegenic. Running over the established time limits as he goes through bullet point after bullet point might not be the best way for him to go about doing this. Voters know he's competent. Now he just has to show them that he has a lighter side as well.

What he definitely wants to avoid: The last thing Bill Richardson needs is to sound equivocal on illegal immigration. Nobody really knows where he stands on the issue other than that he is against a border fence. As a child of a White American father and a Mexican mother, voters with a nativist streak may plant doubts in voters' minds about where his loyalty lies.

Margin of error: It seems that voters are really looking for an alternative to the Clinton-Obama slugfest. Of all the second tier candidates, Richardson has the best chance to be this alternative. Richardson's previous debate performances haven't been all that good. But his standing in the polls has increased despite them. So perhaps more of the same would be good enough for him. However, a solid home run would be a boon to his campaign and a potentially fatal blow for Obama and Edwards, both of whom are flagging a bit.

Joe Biden: Joe Biden is definitely saying all the right things. He has not made any real mistakes at all since stepping all over his own campaign announcement several months ago. However, he is not really attracting much buzz. This debate will probably make or break his campaign unless he goes on offense and draws blood.

The perception he wants to create: Biden needs to show voters that he is a serious, viable candidate. Period. But in addition to that, he needs to press his Iraq policy a bit more forcefully because he seems to be all alone on that issue. Saying "out of Iraq now" is not enough. Putting forth his detailed partitioning policy sounds like something a commander in chief would propose. He needs to ride this horse all the way to the finish line if he wants to move up in the polls.

The questions he wants to put to rest: It's the same question that confronted him in the first debate: Is he a serious candidate?

What he definitely wants to avoid: Any gaffe at this point is fatal. Biden is still trying to deal with the caricature of him as always having his foot in his mouth. Validating this caricature with another gaffe would finish him off for sure.

Margin of error: When you're as far behind in the polls as Biden is, the margin of error simply doesn't exist. Time is running out for him to make some waves.

Chris Dodd: Dodd's inability to catch fire in the campaign has been a bit difficult to understand. He is experienced and intelligent, has put forth several good policy proposals, and hasn't made any real mistakes thus far. However, Dodd is coming across like a slice of white bread. How can a "generic liberal Northeastern Democrat" compete with the likes of a Hillary Clinton or a Barack Obama? And even Bill Richardson is scooping up voters who place a premium on competence and experience. There's simply not enough oxygen left for him.

The perception he wants to create: The one thing Dodd does have going for him is the fact that Democrats generally know who Clinton, Obama, and Edwards are. If they haven't made up their minds about them by now, they probably will never support them. Dodd needs to reach out to these unaffiliated voters and actually define himself to them. Dodd needs to stand behind the podium and say "I'm Chris Dodd and I believe I can be a more effective president than any other candidate on this stage. I'm not as fresh or as handsome as the other candidates here, but I'm a lot more experienced and a lot more electable." Mike Gravel was able to make an impression on voters in the first debate. Dodd wasn't. In fact, Dodd seems to be the most obscure candidate remaining in the race. In a nutshell, Dodd needs to have a moment and an issue that define his campaign.

The questions he wants to put to rest: "Who's Chris Dodd?" People shouldn't still be asking this at this stage of the game.

What he definitely wants to avoid: Dodd needs to avoid gaining name recognition the Mike Gravel way--by saying crazy things.

Margin of error: When you're running so far behind and are stuck in neutral, your back is pretty much against the wall. If Dodd doesn't have a breakout moment soon, he risks getting lapped by the other candidates. Dodd may have more to gain from this debate than any other candidate except Bill Richardson because none of the other candidates are as invisible as Dodd is right now. He should use this blank slate to his advantage.

Dennis Kucinich: Kucinich continues to soldier on. Voters know who he is, but he is still seen as a one-issue candidate (Iraq withdrawal). Until that perception changes, Kucinich's campaign is going nowhere. Even liberal Democrats seem to be throwing their support behind other candidates.

The perception he wants to create: An aura of viability. Can he really make liberalism trendy again? And can get any any traction from the bad form exhibited by Clinton and Edwards when they were speaking into open microphones about eliminating the gadfly candidates?

The questions he wants to put to rest: Any questions about his wife. Seriously, it's never a good sign when the media seem more interested in your wife than in you.

What he definitely wants to avoid: Kucinich is in a situation where it doesn't matter what people say about him because he will keep fighting what he believes is the good fight--even if that means he's fighting it all alone.

Margin of error: Kucinich has absolutely nothing to lose. To his credit, he has remained consistent on his main issues (Iraq and impeachment). He can afford to continue to challenge the more established candidates on "his" issues because his "truth" and the core of his convictions sound much stronger than their non-denial denials and dodging.

Mike Gravel: Gravel has lost any chance of being the nominee. Voters know who he is now, and they are tired of him. The field is expected to winnow soon, and voters will be looking for him to make his graceful exit.

The perception he wants to create: It's too late. Voters have already made up their minds about him. If anything, he needs to show voters that he is not a lunatic. When that's what you're trying to do as a politician, that's when it's time to reassess your campaign.

The questions he wants to put to rest: It's too late. Gravel has assumed the role of the crazy uncle we invite to family reunions just because he's family even though nobody really wants to talk to him.

What he definitely wants to avoid: It's too late. Voters don't like him.

Margin of error: It's too late. His campaign is finished. But look for him to leave on his own terms. He won't be pushed out of the race by any means. However, Gravel does have the unique ability to throw the other candidates off kilter. If he can do that, he may be able to bring a candidate or two down with him.

In short:
Clinton needs to just stay in cruise control.
Obama needs to take things to the next level.
Edwards needs to plug up his sinking ship.
Richardson needs to harness his momentum and use it to propel him into the top tier.
Biden needs to give voters a reason to take him seriously.
Dodd needs to give voters a reason to actually know who he is.
Kucinich needs to challenge the other candidates to put their money where their mouth is regarding the war and impeachment.
Gravel needs to drop out.


The Second Democratic Debate: My Reaction

The 8 declared Democratic presidential candidates participated in their second debate last night in New Hampshire. This debate seemed more substantive than the first debate in South Carolina about six weeks ago. While nobody made any fatal gaffes, I do believe some of the candidates have a bit more to worry about because they failed to meet higher expectations, failed to surpass lowered expectations, or simply ran in place when they needed to make a move.

Hillary Clinton: Clinton had a commanding performance in this debate and is probably even more difficult for the other frontrunners to catch. She sounded competent, resolute, and strong. She did an excellent job of conveying how the decisions a president makes cannot be reduced to mere hypotheticals that are almost always less complex than what a president actually has to deal with. She also stayed above the fray between Obama and Edwards by reminding voters that the important differences are between the Democrats and the Republicans, rather than among the Democrats themselves. There is no denying the fact that Clinton is a skilled, disciplined politician. She did not draw fire when unnecessary and did not open herself up to any devastating attacks. She should look for her poll numbers to solidify.

Barack Obama: Obama needs to be careful because I get the sense that the bloom is coming off of the rose that is his candidacy. He had a stronger performance in this debate than he did in South Carolina, but the lack of heft in his messages is becoming a bit too much to ignore. Edwards leveled a strong blow when comparing Obama to a "legislator" instead of a "leader," but Obama was able to quickly neutralize this attack by reminding Edwards of his war vote. To be fair, when Obama speaks, he often speaks in generalities much like other politicians do. However, Obama has to deal with the fact that he cannot afford to do this as much as the other candidates because it is perceived as one of his major weaknesses. Expectations have risen considerably for Obama, but I fear that he will not be able to meet them in the future. His polling performance seems to have peaked, as Clinton has been able to widen her lead. Is Obama '08 the same as Dean '04?

John Edwards: John Edwards did a good job in this debate and leveled a good blow on Obama. However, he was effectively countered by Obama's response that Edwards' leadership is "about four and a half years late." Edwards was forced to be gracious towards Obama a bit later in the debate because he knew Obama used a potent weapon against him. Having said that, Edwards sounded a bit more practical last night and benefited from not having to worry about questions about his own personal wealth, his haircut, and his estate. So nothing new fed into the developing caricatures of him as a rich kid who doesn't understand the Average Joe. Edwards knows what he has to do. Edwards and Obama are both in the same position as vying for being the Hillary alternative. However, Edwards was much more aggressive than Obama last night because he knows that this is the only way to gain ground. Obama tried hard to stay above the fray, but this approach is not going to prevent others from gaining ground on him. Edwards gets it. Look for him to be more aggressive towards Obama in the future. Does Edwards smell blood?

Bill Richardson: Bill Richardson's presentation was much better last night than in the first debate. He looked more relaxed and less "scowly." He gave a lot of pragmatic, thoughtful responses to the questions and went into more depth than the three frontrunners. However, he did not come across as energizing. This might play well in New Hampshire, where primary voters tend to do their homework, but Richardson might be toast in other states where voters are more swayed by one's charisma or presentation. His suggestion that the US boycott the 2008 Olympic Games was memorable and he did a great job of defending this position. However, he still did not draw blood on any of the frontrunners, and thus did not break into the top tier.

Joe Biden: Joe Biden has had two solid debate performances in a row now. He is obviously competent, experienced, thoughtful, and passionate. He also came across as a pragmatist regarding ending the war in Iraq and funding the troops. His civics lesson about how 67 Senate votes are required to override a veto and how this war won't end unless there's a Democrat in the White House may have opened a few eyes as well. If his fundraising can improve, he could overtake Richardson as the candidate most likely to enter the top tier. Even though they both are often saying the same things, Biden's delivery is much more compelling.

Chris Dodd: Chris Dodd was really hamstrung during the debate. He did not receive a lot of questions, had very little talk time, and kinda got lost in the shuffle again. When he did speak, he did so confidently and competently. But he's not in the position to not go on offense. He's trying to go on offense in his television ads, but he failed to do so in the debate. The fact that Connecticut is close to New Hampshire gives Dodd an opening for a surprise, but until he can improve his name recognition and give voters a reason to pay attention to him, look for Dodd to continue to run at the back of the pack.

Dennis Kucinich: Kucinich got a lot more talk time than his poll standings would suggest he warrants, so he should have no complaints about that. Iraq is clearly his main issue, but exactly how many voters are willing to vote for Kucinich just because of Iraq? That remains to be seen, but he did make a good point about how borrowing money from China to fight in Iraq is much more of a threat to our security than withdrawing our troops. Right now, Kucinich is not viewed as credible. Until voters take him seriously as a candidate, his message, no matter how well thought out it may be, will not be heeded.

Mike Gravel: Gravel was more subdued last night and lobbed fewer grenades. He generated some buzz after his first performance, but I think he did not help his momentum last night. He's clearly a gadfly candidate with no credibility. Look for other debate hosts to exclude him in the future because the signal to noise ratio in his responses is too high to make his participation worth it.

The bottom line:

Hillary Clinton is in position to run away from the pack and make this a blowout. Perhaps she'll be more difficult for the Republicans to beat than they think?

Barack Obama can't afford to cruise anymore. His airplane is losing altitude and Edwards is gaining on him. Could Obama be seen more as vice presidential?

John Edwards should receive a nice bump from his performance last night. He regained a bit of momentum and may siphon off a few of Obama's supporters.

Bill Richardson should hope that voters pay more attention to what he says, rather than how he says it. He is clearly a problem solver and a critical thinker, but he is not a compelling speaker. He missed a chance to break out. Look for him to remain in the second tier.

Joe Biden cannot be ignored. He knows he's running towards the back of the pack, but he has nowhere to go but up. After two solid performances in a row, I believe his candidacy will be viewed more credibly. Look for an uptick in his momentum.

Dennis Kucinich may have raised a few good points, but look for his influence to be mainly in the form of getting voters to ask other more credible candidates their positions on the issues he raises.

Mike Gravel is comedy relief, but I think his 15 minutes of fame are over. His presence is annoying to the other candidates and the voters because he takes up time that the other more credible candidates can use to flesh out their positions.

The moderator, Wolf Blitzer of CNN, did a good job of leading the debate, although the hypothetical questions he asked were counterproductive. He should also ensure in the future that the candidates be given equal time to participate. Chris Dodd, and to a lesser extent, Bill Richardson, have legitimate gripes.


Elephants in the Room: The Second Republican Debate

I just saw the second debate between the Republican presidential candidates in Columbia. It's amazing knowing that all those powerful people actually came HERE. It's so nice to be spoiled by living in one of the so-called "early" states. That doesn't change the fact that I still think it's not particularly equitable, but it is what it is and that's what we have to work with.

Anyway, I thought of the three debates I've seen so far between both parties, this one was the most substantiative. The questions were pointed and the moderators didn't let the candidates spin, thus allowing for real, actual debate to take place.

I think this debate was important because it confirms who the real players are and who should just go home. There are 11 candidates running, including one who wasn't allowed to participate in the debate. I think that several of these candidates would be well advised to go the way of Tom Vilsack and Evan Bayh.

Buh-bye. Thank you for playing. We have some nice parting gifts for you. These candidates should just drop out now:

Jim Gilmore. This guy has a habit of criticizing the other candidates, but he shied away from doing so when he had the chance tonight. All he could do was tell us to check out his campaign site tomorrow when he will name names?! Look, if you're not going to say something to someone's face, then don't say it at all. This single moment made Gilmore look like a C-grade candidate. If he can't stand up to "Rudy McRomney," how can he be expected to stand up to Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong Il or Al Qaeda? He couldn't even express regret that no minority candidates were running for the GOP nomination. What a gimme question! And he bombed it! Go home.

Tommy Thompson. When asked which government program he would cut to save money, he talked about "many" programs that were wasteful. However, the best he could come up with was "the stockpile." Huh? Is he going to blame this lame response on another hearing aid malfunction? Another swollen bladder? Fatigue? The moderator smugly dismissed Thompson when he asked Ron Paul the same question and said "Can you do better than that?" It doesn't seem like Thompson is quite ready for prime time. How can he continue his campaign? He has no gravitas whatsoever.

Tom Tancredo. He did better tonight than at the first debate and even had a few memorable one-liners. However, I just don't think voters take him seriously. He is an issue candidate, and that issue is illegal immigration. But even when he had a chance to hit a grand slam with a question about this when it was posed to him, he did not throw out a lot of red meat, and it seemed to take him a long time to rev up in his response.

Time is running out. These candidates have very little margin for error:

Duncan Hunter. Duncan Hunter was saying all the right things for Republicans, but he seemed like Chris Dodd in the Democrats' debate. In other words, he did not distinguish himself and kinda got lost in the shuffle. He did well in the first debate, but he had a bit of a letdown this time around. For someone who's only pulling 1% in the polls, a letdown is the very last thing he needs. Hunter's problem is that he occupies the same turf as McCain and Giuliani regarding defense and the same turf as Tancredo regarding illegal immigration. Hunter better find a way to differentiate himself soon, or else...

Sam Brownback. Brownback's immediate enemy is Mike Huckabee. They are both running as staunch pro-lifers, but here's Brownback's problem. While his anti-abortion credentials are impeccable, he doesn't seem to be offering much else in terms of reasons why people should support his candidacy. Huckabee, on the other hand, is also able to successfully articulate his anti-abortion and pro-family positions in addition to being able to convey his competence regarding executive experience. Brownback needs to find a way to get from behind Huckabee's shadow, and quick.

Moving up! These candidates left the debate in a better position than before it:

Mike Huckabee. Could this be the most formidable GOP candidate out there? He is definitely a charismatic and talented speaker. His biography is compelling and his positions on the issues conservatives hold dear raise few red flags. He also did an excellent job of acquitting himself regarding the tax increase that took place under his watch in Arkansas, which should calm fiscal conservatives down just a bit. He also had the best one-liner of the night in regards to John Edwards. That'll certainly be replayed on YouTube and in blogs everywhere. He comes from the right part of the country for Republicans (the South), has executive experience, has solid pro-life credentials, and simply looks presidential. Mike Huckabee is Public Enemy #1 for Mitt Romney because Huckabee seems much more authentic and doesn't have to worry about allegations of flip flopping on issues important to conservatives.

Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani's for real. He spoke much more convincingly this time around and had the most poignant exchange of the night with Ron Paul, although I think he misrepresented Paul's position. His decision to speak more openly about being pro-choice has clearly liberated him, although it may be political suicide in Iowa and South Carolina. However, he defended the merits of his position--particularly the point that conservatives don't like government intervention in their private lives, so why should abortion be any different? He also effectively parried Mike Huckabee's comparison of opposing abortion and opposing slavery. He also did a solid job of evoking images of his leadership on September 11, which is his trump card. All in all, he had a solid performance. And for the first time, I really think Giuliani can win this nomination. He's got it together.

John McCain. John McCain stopped the bleeding tonight. He got into a testy exchange with Mitt Romney and drew blood when he reminded the audience of Romney's "conversions" on some issues that are critical to conservatives. He might not be a flashy or sexy candidate, but John McCain is clearly a competent, consistent conservative with strong national security credentials. He's running as the establishment candidate similar to Hillary Clinton. Although he veered into dangerous territory with the Confederate flag question, he made no major mistakes and did well enough to satisfy a few doubts about his campaign.

Oops! These candidates are moving dooooowwwwwn:

Mitt Romney. After winning the first debate, Romney was underwhelming tonight. He was outshone by Mike Huckabee, wounded by John McCain, and sandbagged by so many difficult questions about his conversions on issues important to conservatives. This debate could be a fatal blow to his candidacy because Mike Huckabee is clearly a force to be reckoned with, scabs were ripped off of the old stories about his flip-flopping, he was tarred as a political opportunist, and voters were reminded of the fact that he was a lot more liberal when he served in Massachusetts. Ouch.

I have no idea what to make of Ron Paul. His arguments were compelling and well thought out, but I don't think America is quite yet ready for Paul's ideas. I worry that Republicans and dittoheads will mischaracterize his exchange with Rudy Giuliani about why 9-11 happened. Sean Hannity accused Ron Paul of blaming America for 9-11, which he did not do at all. Paul offers a new way of looking at America's role in the world, but it is a complex view that requires people to avoid knee jerk thinking. But he spoke in a way average people could understand though. ("If China started building permanent bases in America, how would you feel?") A lot of Democrats are looking at Ron Paul as a Republican they can live with. Many Republicans are probably wondering if Paul is even running for the right party's nomination. I think Paul can more effectively get out his libertarian message as a Republican candidate than as a Libertarian or Democratic candidate, however. How well this message will be received, however, is a whole different kettle of fish.

In a nutshell...

McCain stopped the bleeding. He is the Hillary Clinton of the Republican field.

Giuliani strengthened his hand. Can he really pull out the nomination?

Romney has to be sweating bullets. His momentum was stopped cold in its tracks.

Huckabee is knocking on the door of the top tier candidates. With a little bit of funding, he could be very dangerous to "Rudy McRomney."

Thompson is a joke.

Gilmore is an even bigger joke.

Tancredo is a gadfly candidate with a message the size of a 747.

Brownback is playing second fiddle to Huckabee. There's not enough room for both of them.

Paul is in a league by himself. He's holding a hockey stick on a baseball field. Maybe he'll catch on. Maybe he won't. But at least he'll get people talking.


The Republican Debate

Last week the Democratic presidential candidates debated in Orangeburg, South Carolina. This week it was the Republicans' turn. The contrasts between the two debates and the two political parties could not be starker.

The first major difference I noticed pertained to the debate setting. Before the Democrats' debate, the media focused a lot on South Carolina State University, Orangeburg, the civil rights struggle, and the plight of lower class Blacks living in rural areas. This made a lot of sense, given that Orangeburg is located in rural central South Carolina and the middle of Congressman Jim Clyburn's majority Black congressional district. Fair enough.

The Republicans' debate, however, took place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. A lot of the media stories pertained to the Reagan legacy, his accomplishments, and his presidential library. While the Democrats' setting was a university campus, the Republicans' setting was the library of one of the most revered presidents in American history. This setting was inescapable as Air Force One was clearly visible behind the journalists anchoring the debate.

As Howard Fineman pointed out, because of the debate setting, the Democrats looked like the "we are family" party. Simply put, the Republicans looked like executives. This probably shouldn't mean much, but I can't help but wonder how many casual political observers will allow this imagery to seep into their subconscious mind and use it to help guide their decisions regarding their votes in the event that they do not learn much more about the candidates other than which party they represent.

So in terms of media packaging, I think the Republicans did a better job of looking "presidential." University campuses in economically downtrodden areas are not "presidential." While debating at such a place can help shed light on social issues that need more attention, I am not so sure this is the best choice.

Since 1968 Republicans have won 7 of the last 10 presidential elections. Staging a debate at the library of the most successful of these seven presidents was a shrewd move from a public relations standpoint. Kudos to the Republicans.

As for the debate itself, I could not help but feel like so many of the second tier candidates were overlapping each other in terms of how they wanted to position themselves. Brownback and Huckabee were trying to establish themselves as social and religious conservatives. Tancredo and Hunter were working really hard for the anti-illegal immigration vote. Thompson and Gilmore had been trying to position themselves as can-do governors with records proving their conservative credentials. Only Ron Paul (a pro-life Libertarian) was in a niche by himself.

Obviously, the Top 3 ("Rudy McRomney") are in a class by themselves. This debate meant different things to all three of them:

For Mitt Romney, this debate served as a chance to allay voters' concerns about his Mormon faith and his recent "conversions" regarding issues like abortion and gay rights. Although he had consistently been polling third (or sometimes fourth, if you include Frank Thompson), his fundraising totals have been the most impressive among the Republicans. After watching the debate, I can say that Romney has to be feeling pretty good about his campaign and its momentum. He did an excellent job of answering questions in an articulate, authoritative way. He also displayed a good sense of humor and had excellent stage presence. In short, Romney looked and sounded presidential. And that Mormon thing? Well, I think he handled this issue adeptly. Surely it will continue to come up in the ongoing political process courtesy of members of our society who inhabit the lowest common denominator, but I think for most voters, they actually came away from the debate actually liking the guy. If I am a Democrat running for president, Romney is the candidate I most definitely do not want to face.

McCain's candidacy has been flagging as of late because of his "bomb Iran" joke, disappointing fundraising totals, and a general sense of feeling adrift. Others have given McCain favorable reviews about his debate performance, but I must disagree. I think McCain did not show a lot of vigor, his answers seemed rehearsed, and I questioned exactly how badly he really wanted to be president. He answered most questions appropriately, but just didn't appear to have that drive in him on stage. Also, after a forceful (though rehearsed?) remark about following Osama to "the gates of Hell," he gave a very inappropriate smirk. Did that look presidential? I did not see anything in his performance that would lead me to believe he'd attract a drove of new supporters. If his fundraising continues to stall, could he drop out before the Iowa caucuses even begin?

Rudy Giuliani had the most the lose in this debate. Since he announced his candidacy, Giuliani has been flying high in the polls. His standing in the polls has largely defied conventional wisdom because of his moderate to liberal views on social issues like abortion, gun rights, and affirmative action. I think a large segment of these "Rudy fans" simply do not know his record on those issues and are supporting him simply because "he helped guide us through those dark days after September 11." Nobody talks much about the pre-9-11 Rudy because that image of him and his ash-covered suit overwhelms everything else. I think that may have changed after the debate, however. Surely Giuliani would have liked for the debate to focus on terrorism for 90 minutes, but unfortunately for him, a lot of time was spent on the very issue that puts him at such odds with the base of his party: abortion. I think his nuanced responses and waffling regarding the repeal of Roe vs. Wade was quite telling, and his positioning on stage as one of the last candidates to have to respond to that question didn't help:

Moderator: If Roe vs. Wade were repealed, would that be a good day in America?

Romney: A glorious day.

Brownback: A celebration of liberty.

Huckabee: A great day.

Gilmore: It was wrongly decided.

etc. etc. etc.

Giuliani: It would be okay...

(cue the sound of a car screeching to a halt)

This led to a long back and forth between Giuliani and the moderator in which he was forced to clarify his remarks. For his supporters and campaign staff, I'm sure this was agonizing to watch.

That exchange, I believe, is what will end the love affair that so many Republicans have for Giuliani. For many of them, this was the first time they had ever heard him defend abortion or give them reason to doubt that "he is not on their side." Look for his poll ratings to drop out of the stratosphere. Social conservatives who vote strictly on abortion are likely lost forever to Giuliani in light of this "new information" and are going to flock to Romney, Brownback, and Huckabee. In short, Giuliani fared a bit worse than expectations, although he did not bomb the debate.

Sam Brownback has been registering 1 or 2 percent in most polls. He clearly conveyed that he wants to carry social conservatives' water, but I am not sure he did anything that would vault him into the top tier. I doubt he will win the nomination, but I would not count him out as a vice presidential pick. If he does not gain much traction from this debate, I expect him to throw in the towel. This debate gave him the opportunity to introduce himself to a mega audience and he performed adequately. However, I don't think he really distinguished himself. The fact that he is competing directly with Mike Huckabee for votes does not help.

Until this debate, Mike Huckabee has been one of the most mysterious candidates. He has a compelling story (losing 100 pounds), is a Southern governor, and has a charming demeanor. However, he did not seem to be running for president full throttle. As a result, his campaign operation is not at the top of its game. I think of all the second tier candidates, his stock value rose the most. Grover Norquist conservatives might not like Huckabee because he actually (gasp!) raised taxes while he was Arkansas' governor, but I think most other Republicans will give Huckabee a look, especially if they have their reservations about Rudy McRomney. Huckabee is proud to be a social conservative, a Christian conservative, and a Christian who believes his Christian beliefs should have a role in his policy ideas. He also had a commanding stage presence and looked presidential. Evangelicals who view Romney with suspicion because of his Mormon faith may be especially pleased with his performance at the debate. Conservatives who are leery of nominating a Massachusetts governor or a New York mayor may also be more satisfied with a southern governor instead. I personally believe Mike Huckabee is public enemy #1 for John McCain because even though they both have similar positions regarding abortion, McCain represents the old guard while Huckabee seems new and fresh. I believe Huckabee would be a difficult candidate for the Democrats to run against because even though he is a conservative right-wing Republican, he does not come across nearly as abrasive as those on the religious right are often portrayed.

To me, Duncan Hunter is the Republicans' dream candidate. He is right on taxes, right on immigration, right on defense, right on abortion, right on gay rights, right on guns, and right on foreign policy. He is a hawk, and he is unashamed to admit it. Republicans in Orange County, California, clearly liked what he was saying, so that might help him out with fundraising. I think Tom Tancredo has to be worried because Hunter spoke with far more confidence at the debate and seemed to steal Tancredo's main issue (illegal immigration). Hunter came across like a no-nonsense executive that could unite all the factions of the Republican Party. He is most definitely not charismatic, but he definitely had a commanding presence at the debate. Basically, he sounded like a Dick Cheney with hair. I think he helped his campaign a lot with his strong debate performance, although there are still too many candidates in the race for him to really get his message out. Hunter is my dark horse Republican candidate. I think he is a primary threat to Rudy Giuliani in particular because Hunter's experience on the House Armed Services Committee allows him to stand toe to toe with Giuliani when it comes to defense and even terrorism. If Giuliani loses the terrorism issue, he's toast, unless he decides to appeal to moderate Republicans instead a la Lincoln Chafee.

Jim Gilmore, the former governor of Virginia, did not make any major gaffes at the debate. However, I cannot see Republicans coalescing around his campaign because there just didn't seem to be a moment where he shined. Gilmore seemed to be a "me too" candidate who could not stop talking about "his record." He tried to position himself as "the credible conservative," but the problem with this is that almost all of the second tier candidates are trying to do the same thing. I think Gilmore is like the Republicans' Chris Dodd. He may have a record that looks good on paper, but I think he got lost in the shuffle at the debate.

Tommy Thompson was disappointing. Like Jim Gilmore, he happily talked about "his record" and his "1900 vetoes." However, he clumsily handled a question asking if a business should fire a homosexual worker. He tried to hee and haw by saying "it was up to each individual business to decide," but the moderator pinned him down as a "yes." After the debate, Thompson changed his answer to a "no" and blamed his "yes" on "not being able to hear the question." This is the same guy that recently blamed an ethnic joke about Jews on "a persistent cold" and "fatigue." Anyway, I expect him to throw in the towel soon. Why does it seem like so many Republicans with occasionally moderate views are so afraid of angering religious conservatives when it comes to abortion and gay rights?

Tom Tancredo is not going to be the GOP nominee. He spoke haltingly, seemed confused, and even let Duncan Hunter steal his bread and butter issue of illegal immigration. He also struggled to answer the questions fast enough, thus causing the moderator to cut him off before he could make his points. Looks like Tancredo is going to be a one-issue candidate, but if Hunter continues to steal his thunder, I cannot see any rationale for Tancredo to continue his campaign.

Ron Paul, a congressman from Texas who once ran for president as a Libertarian, was perhaps the most authentic of the 10 candidates at the debate. His answers seemed passionate and unrehearsed. He distinguished himself as the only candidate who is against the Iraq War. I think there are more Republicans who are against this war than polling suggests, so Paul stands to reap a ton of new supporters who place Iraq above everything else. Abolishing the IRS probably made anti-tax conservatives squeal with delight. Look for Paul to leapfrog about 1/3 to half of the Republican field in terms of support. Other than his Iraq and taxation views, part of what made him stand out was his frequent mentioning of the government's role in our lives. I do not know how many Barry Goldwater Republicans are left in the party, but I think Paul easily won them over with his performance at the debate. Paul's candidacy shows why libertarian Republicans from the West cannot coexist with religious and social conservatives from the South. I personally would be intrigued by a Paul presidency, and I think he may appeal to voters who have developed an "America first" mentality and resent the role of being the world's policeman. Because there are no other candidates of either party occupying the libertarian niche, I think Paul is uniquely positioned to experience a groundswell of support.

In a nutshell, these are my predictions:

Romney exceeded expectations and is moving up. He is a force to be reckoned with and may very well be the only Republican that can win in 2008 if his performance at the debate is indicative of his political skills in general. But how many bigoted Republicans will sabotage him?

McCain actually looked his age at the debate and seemed unfocused at some times and overly rehearsed at other times. I think his campaign is nearing a make or break point. His debate performance was subpar in my estimation and he doesn't have much margin for error anymore.

Giuliani should come crashing back down to earth soon. He did okay, but was a little disappointing. The aura of "America's Mayor" may have been replaced by doubts about his commitment to social conservatives' primary issues. He will be bombarded by questions about his position on abortion on the campaign trail in the coming weeks, and time he spends talking about abortion is time he's not spending on his signature issue of terrorism.

Brownback got a bit more name recognition, but is still stuck in the second tier.

Huckabee helped his campaign considerably and is poised to break out. Did Rudy McRomney write him off too soon?

Gilmore might as well drop out of the race and stop wasting his time. His conservative credentials may be genuine, but why settle for Generic Republican when you can have the charismatic Romney or the compelling Huckabee?

Thompson should do the same. I think he really sandbagged himself by hedging on the gay rights question because Brownback, Hunter, and Huckabee clearly showed where the stand on the issue. Thompson was seen as equivocating, which just won't sell with evangelicals when they have so many other better options to choose from.

Hunter is the conservative hawk in the race. I think he may have moved from the third tier to the second tier. If doubts about his viability dissipate, he may very well be the Republican nominee. He would be tough to run against and would probably take a lot of states off the map. I think Duncan Hunter is the best Republican you've never heard of.

Tancredo is becoming the Republicans' Al Sharpton. He's made his point. Illegal immigration is bad. Border fences are good. Now he should get out of the race before he becomes a GOP punch line.

Ron Paul is the libertarian in the race. He may very well have a monopoly on anti-tax conservatives and anti-war Republicans. However, as a libertarian, evangelicals might not take too kindly to his "don't tread on me/live and let live" philosophy. I think he has a lot of potential, but I worry his campaign may be doomed by Republican fratricide, rather than any gaffes of his own making. Look for his popularity to increase.


The First Debate: A Second Analysis

I watched a rebroadcast of the debate this afternoon on MSNBC. I have to say that I have to amend my original analysis. For the sake of professionalism and the credibility of The 7-10, I will not edit that original analysis. Interested readers can contrast my original analysis with my second one after viewing the debate again. I noticed a few subtleties that took place during the debate that I had missed the first time. Perhaps because I was so overcome with emotion and caught up in the moment I was unable to fully concentrate.

So here's my second analysis:

Hillary Clinton: No change here. She did a sufficient job of answering the questions posed to her. Keep in mind that "sufficient" doesn't necessarily mean "great." She even used some of the lines I thought she would, such as "I take responsibility for my [Iraq War] vote." She left the debate as the best positioned candidate. She looked poised, she smiled, she was attentive, and her answers were comprehensive. Her debate performance mimicked her campaign perfectly. It is obvious she had practiced rigorously prior to this debate because she did not look like she was thrown off kilter by anything the moderators asked.

Barack Obama: Obama was disappointing. I think a lot of his soft supporters were looking forward to hearing a lot more substance from him in the debate. I think the expectations had been built so high for him that he had a very fine line to walk. He made a rookie mistake by getting into an extended argument with Dennis Kucinich over Iran because Kucinich is not a threat to him. Politically speaking, Obama elevated Kucinich and his anti-war message. Obama also bombed on the terrorism question, no pun intended. Republicans probably feel much better about facing him now than before the debate.

John Edwards: I must admit that Edwards did better than I originally thought. He did not win the debate by any means, but I think he missed several opportunities to help his campaign. Edwards used a lot of the same language that Obama used in terms of hope and unity. However, Edwards can get away with this because Obama is receiving the brunt of the criticism about there being so little meat in his message. I still believe Edwards flubbed the moral leader and economics question. He seemed not to know how to respond to the hedge fund question and instead tried to turn it to a subject he was more comfortable discussing. I do worry that people who have worries about Obama and his lack of experience and meat may rub off on Edwards supporters as well. Edwards didn't do a great job tonight, but he did not hurt himself too badly either. I think he left the debate in the same position he was in before it started. But as goes Obama, so goes Edwards? By the way, one question was particularly damaging for Edwards. Obama, Clinton, and Edwards were the only candidates not to raise their hands when the moderator asked who has ever owned a gun as an adult. Southerners may forgive Clinton and Obama for being removed from "gun culture," but they might view Edwards, a North Carolinian, suspiciously. "Is he truly one of us?" Could that one question derail his campaign and limit his appeal in Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and other Southern states?

Bill Richardson: After watching the debate again, I can confidently say that Richardson mopped the floor with Clinton, Obama and Edwards in terms of his grasp of foreign policy and executive experience. He had a nice list of bullet points detailing how he would tackle certain problems and came across as the lone moderate in the race, which should provide solace to those who were supporting Evan Bayh and Mark Warner. He did make a small gaffe when he talked about "a post-democratic Cuba" and seemed to forget about the executive responsibilities he deals with in New Mexico ("guns?"), but those paled in comparison to his points about energy, Africa, diplomacy, and terrorism. I think he raised a few eyebrows, but needs to work on controlling himself in terms of following the debate rules because he consistently talked over the moderator. That may evoke images of Al Gore sighing during the debates.

Chris Dodd: I must give Dodd credit. He is an intelligent, well-spoken, thoughtful man. He did not bomb any questions and answered them quite thoroughly. Liberals might not be happy with the way he handled the gay marriage/civil union question, but I do not think this is fatal. Dodd seems to be positioning himself as a mainstream liberal. He came across like a better disciplined John Kerry. Dodd did not hit any home runs at the debate, but he did present himself as a competent and reasonably nice guy who embraces center-left values. He was pegged as a Washington insider, but he embraced his family's career in public service. I don't think he energized any new supporters, but he has not taken himself out of the race by any means. He's not on the Republicans' radar right now.

Joe Biden: Simply put, Biden won the debate. He also did the most to help his campaign of all the candidates in the debate. He spoke forcefully, authoritatively, and competently while also showing how he could be funny and likable. His "yes" response to the verbosity question was priceless. Inexplicably, he singled out Hillary as a tough candidate for the Republicans to beat. Could it be that he thinks her nomination is inevitable? Is he trying to be her vice president or Secretary of State? I think Biden's performance has generated a lot of new potential supporters. At the very least, he lent his campaign credibility.

Dennis Kucinich: Kucinich gets credit for being authentic. I am not sure America is ready for a president like Kucinich yet because his thinking seems to put him about 20-30 years ahead of where America actually is. Kucinich's words probably resonated with expatriates and viewers from other countries. He is clearly the anti-war liberal in the race and is not ashamed to run on Iraq and Iran. The fact that no other candidate opted to support his motion to impeach Vice President Cheney works to burnish Kucinich's image as perhaps the only "genuine" Democrat in the race because I'm sure some of those candidates and almost everyone else in the audience want both Bush and Cheney to be kicked out immediately. The fact that Obama chose to debate him directly over the issue of war with Iran only elevated Kucinich and gave his anti-war stance greater prominence. Kucinich was clearly the most comfortable candidate on stage, as he seems to care more about his message, rather than how his message is received according to the polls.

Mike Gravel: If nobody knew who Mike Gravel was before this debate, they sure know now. He was a loose cannon and trained his sights on everyone. Joe Biden foolishly drew his ire by raising his hand during one of his responses, which led to Gravel saying "he had a certain bit of arrogance telling the Iraqis how to run their country." Gravel did get a few good lines in and made some good points about America's "military-industrial complex" and nuclear weapons, but his lack of speaking discipline and decorum have removed any doubts of his campaign's credibility. Gravel's presence detracted a bit from Kucinich because of the overlap of their positions. However, the other Democrats benefited from him because his lack of restraint made the other candidates look moderate or sensible by comparison.

Overall performances:

Hillary Clinton: B+
Barack Obama: C-
John Edwards: B-
Bill Richardson: B+
Chris Dodd: B
Joe Biden: A-
Dennis Kucinich: A
Mike Gravel: 7.436RF4 (Can you better quantify his performance?)

Before the Debate at SC State: Behind the Scenes

As promised, here's a rundown of my experiences at the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Orangeburg Thursday night.

Thanks to a family connection, I was able to score two tickets to the debate viewing and after-party. When I picked those tickets up on Wednesday from Congressman Jim Clyburn's field office, I found that they were VIP tickets that would allow us to sit on the floor at the large tables in the debate viewing area, which was the campus gymnasium. I was a bit concerned though because three of us were going to attend the debate: myself, my wife, and my sister.

Because I'm on the Bill Richardson campaign mailing list, I was able to arrange for three additional general admission tickets for the debate viewing area. Because we obviously wanted to sit together in the VIP area, we would try and score one more ticket after we arrived at the SC State campus.

The drive from Columbia to Orangeburg went smoothly enough. However, when we got to Highway 601, that's when the traffic backed up. There were South Carolina state troopers and county police officers EVERYWHERE. We could see how Orangeburg was benefiting from the economic boom they had likely been experiencing because of all the media coverage and the large entourages that accompanied the candidates. Marquees outside of local restaurants and hotels were appealing directly for their business.

After arriving at the SC State campus, we noticed immediately that we were in Obama Country, but Clinton and her supporters were clearly not conceding anything. One point to keep in mind is that SC State is a historically Black university located in Orangeburg, a mostly Black town in central South Carolina. It is located squarely in Congressman Jim Clyburn's majority Black district. So the strength of Obama and Clinton in this part of South Carolina is obvious to me. Interestingly, I noticed that while Blacks largely seemed split between Obama and Clinton, the Whites I saw there seemed to be evenly distributed between Obama, Clinton, and Edwards.

I went to the Richardson tent to pick up my three debate viewing tickets. When I asked the worker there about scoring one more VIP ticket, she said there would be a good chance I could since apparently several other Richardson supporters who had committed to attending the debate hadn't shown up yet. She told us to come back at 7:00. I picked up two Bill Richardson for President campaign signs and left.

We were surprised that we had not been subjected to a security screening so far. We didn't bring a camera with us because we thought they were not allowed. So we decided to walk to a nearby drugstore and pick up two disposable cameras there. While we were walking and sweating in the South Carolina heat, several passing motorists looked at my campaign signs. One person, presumably a Republican, shouted from his car that Democrats only want to raise taxes. Obviously, this motorist is not familiar with the issues, nor is he familiar with the candidates because Bill Richardson is probably the most tax-averse Democratic candidate running.

After returning to the campus with our cameras, I decided to mingle with some of the supporters of the other politicians. I approached the Clinton tent and asked the staffers there a few questions. They were polite and engaged me. They asked why I was a Richardson supporter and I asked the same about them and Clinton. I guess I tripped up the supporter I was talking to with her rhetoric when she responded to my question, "Well, I just think Hillary's the best candidate for the job." Okay.

Next I went to the Chris Dodd tent. I was surprised to see so many people there wearing Dodd stickers and T-shirts. This Dodd presence seemed to contradict most polling data I had seen so far, although perhaps it's not so surprising after all in light of straw poll victories for the Dodd camp. When I talked with some of the people congregating around the Dodd table, I found that some of them didn't even know who he was. It turned out that someone had paid them to sport Dodd gear and inflate the presence of his campaign.

Next up was the Biden tent. Nobody was standing there. Only one woman was manning the tent. I asked her what her story was because it seemed that about 95% of the people at the debate were either in the Obama, Clinton, or Edwards camp. She told me how the media haven't done many favors to the voters because they think voters don't have the attention span to pay attention to an eight candidate race. She also said it was still early and that the second-tier candidates hadn't had an opportunity to get their names and messages out.

I wrote about my negative experience with the Obama campaign earlier, so you can read what happened there.

I then spotted two men in the tent next to Richardson's. I approached them and found that they were from the Kucinich campaign. I happily took a bumper sticker and talked with the campaign workers because this was my first experience ever with "the loony gadfly liberal peacinik from Ohio." The man I spoke with seemed considerably more laid back than the other staffers from the other campaigns. We talked a little about Iraq and found some common ground there. I actually found myself agreeing with a lot of what this campaign representative was saying.

And finally, I saw a lone man sitting in the final tent. I guess he arrived late. I guess he was with the Mike Gravel campaign, but I didn't get a chance to talk wit him.

One final thing I want to mention is that there was a Black man wearing a Confederate soldier's uniform and proudly waving a Confederate flag by the street. He seemed to be arguing with all the other Blacks in the area about the flag and his perceived "identity confusion." I can understand these Blacks' obvious consternation. When I had my chance, I decided to approach this man and find out what his story was. Obviously, any Black man proudly waving a Confederate flag goes against the grain and is someone I want to learn more about.

So I calmly approached him and asked him why he was dressed in Confederate garb and why he seemed so angry. To avoid becoming the subject of his ire from the getgo and putting him on the defensive, I told him I was not approaching him in a hostile way. I told him it took a lot of courage for him to do what he was doing where he was doing it because Blacks like this are few and far between. This man seemed to appreciate the compliment and engaged me in a discussion.

It turned out that he was angry with Barack Obama and his supporters because some of them had been hassling him about his Confederate flag. He said that Barack Obama is taking the Black vote for granted and that he has to be more inclusive of all types of people. He thought Obama was a fraud because his supporters representing him at the debate were ostracizing and verbally assailing him. This man said he was considering supporting Obama earlier, but would definitely not do so anymore. He said that I seem to be a different and refreshing type of person and appreciated the way I talked with him. He saw my campaign sign and said that "he would give Mr. Richardson a look" because I represented him well. I am not sure my views represent those of Gov. Richardson regarding the whole Confederacy issue, but I did appreciate the compliment.

We then exchanged business cards. This man's name is H.K. Edgerton and he is the president of an organization known as Southern Heritage 411. I think I was able to get a picture with him, but out of respect for Richardson, I kept the campaign sign out of view. By the way, I had noticed this guy earlier and asked some of the people at the Clinton tent who that man was. They told me they didn't know, but that someone was offering the Clinton people money if they would take a picture of him while holding their Hillary campaign signs.

Wow. Talk about dirty politics.

Later, I saw him giving an interview with NBC News. I left him alone, was able to get that final VIP ticket, and entered the gymnasium to view the debate.


Post-debate reaction: Winners and Losers

I will post more about this tomorrow (it's 2:15 a.m.), but I wanted to provide a brief summary of the candidates' performance at the debate tonight.


Hillary Clinton. She did everything she had to do. Her performance tonight is indicative of her campaign. She didn't hit any home runs, but she methodically belted out a series of successful singles and doubles. She did not come across as particularly engaging or exciting, but she made no mistakes and competently and confidently answered almost every question posed to her. I think the "woman" issue may have been laid to rest because of her performance tonight.

Joe Biden. In terms of beating expectations, Joe Biden performed far better than anyone else on stage tonight. He was knowledgeable, forceful, passionate, and even funny. He also successfully and humorously defused one of the problems that had been hamstringing his campaign--his mouth. Biden didn't have to win the debate tonight and become the new front runner. He simply had to come across as a credible candidate and give people a reason to give his campaign a second look. He more than succeeded in that endeavor.

Dennis Kucinich. To Kucinich's credit, he was the only candidate tonight to openly say what almost every Democrat has been thinking for ages now: that the Iraq War is a farce and that our executive leadership should be impeached. I am not expecting a sudden surge in support for his campaign, but at least he must be respected for his arguments. His best moment was when he took out his pocket-sized copy of the Constitution and reminded the other candidates of what it means when you take the Oath of Office. He also tried to speak directly to the average voter, such as when he talked about the price of his house, unlike the other candidates, which was a nice touch. Kucinich proved tonight that he is not a loony lefty gadfly candidate. He may very well be the conscience of the Democratic Party. I'm honestly not sure why his campaign struggles to gain traction because I think he spoke with more sincerity than almost every other candidate tonight.

Mike Gravel. Nobody knew who this guy was before, but they know who he is now. He was easily the most animated candidate tonight and had the most memorable one-liners. People are not going to flock to his campaign because of his performance tonight, but at least his name recognition among Democrats went up and his brand image should improve.


Bill Richardson. (Fair disclosure: I am a Bill Richardson supporter.) Richardson obviously is quite competent, experienced and intelligent. However, he seemed to try too hard at times to list all of his accomplishments and thus provided overly wordy and tangential answers to fairly simple questions. Thus, he seemed a bit unfocused in his responses at times. However, he did demonstrate that his grasp of foreign policy and executive responsibility far exceeds that of the three front runners. He also stuck up for the Western states when talking about guns, so maybe rural Southern voters may give his campaign a second look as well. I think Richardson did an okay job overall, but I'm not sure if he won over much support from casual observers of politics because he tended to speak at a level above them.


Chris Dodd. Dodd did a respectable job of answering questions and did not make any major mistakes. He did not come across as unlikable, arrogant, or stuffy. However, can you remember anything Dodd said tonight? For a second tier candidate who is generally considered to be running in fifth place, he missed a prime opportunity to reach out to new voters and make a lasting impression on them. Unfortunately for Dodd, he looked like "just another politician" and may have gotten lost in the shuffle.

Barack Obama. The debate over Obama's "Blackness" is a major issue with his campaign. However, there's one other debate that's far more threatening for his campaign. It's the "style vs. substance" issue, which ties in with his inexperience. Obama spoke heavily in platitudes and little in specifics, so I'm not sure I learned much of anything from his performance tonight. He seems to have a lot of good and broad ideas, but no details or specific proposals. Biden successfully addressed his weakness in the debate by confronting it head on. Obama, however, did not. Look for his support to soften because I just don't see how he can keep on giving these optimistic speeches without any meat. Also, his lack of experience may be a tremendous liability should he become the nominee. Why in the world was he engaging Dennis Kucinich? Does he really think that standing up to Kucinich is going to win him new votes? What does he accomplish by doing that? Hillary Clinton, who happened to be standing between the two candidates, had to be shouting "Hallelujah!" inside when this spat happened.

John Edwards. Unfortunately, John Edwards appeared like a lightweight tonight. His answers to questions seemed incomplete, evasive, or uninformed. He did not say anything memorable and demonstrated an insufficient command of some of the issues tonight, such as economic ones. He did try hard to sound humble when asked who his most important moral figure was, but it took him a long time to answer the question and his answer seemed insincere. He also recited a few statistics, but he didn't say much in terms of concrete plans. For someone who is a supposed "top tier candidate," he did not come across as one tonight.


Look for Hillary and Biden to see a nice bump in the polls, mostly at Obama and Edwards' expense.

Look for Richardson to gain a few points or to be more widely considered as a "second choice" candidate.

Look for Obama and Edwards to drop. Obama's numbers will probably fall more precipitously than Edwards' because I believe Obama's support is softer. Could this debate be Obama's Howard Dean moment? Meanwhile, Edwards might have to worry about being overtaken by Richardson and Biden.

Look for Dodd's numbers to remain flat. He's still in the game, but needs to be a bit more aggressive and vibrant if he wants to enter the top tier.

Look for Kucinich's numbers to remain flat while his favorability ratings improve.

Look for Gravel's numbers to remain flat while his name recognition improves.

Post-debate reaction: Obama? No thanks.

This is the first of several posts I plan on making about the Democratic presidential debate in Orangeburg this evening. I submitted this post to the Washington Post. Hopefully someone in the Obama camp will read this and fix the problem because I am not particularly enthused about his campaign after my experience at the debate tonight.


Why this Black man is not for Obama

Barack Obama has lost this Black man's vote.

I attended the Democratic presidential candidates' debate in Orangeburg Thursday night. I had done some research on the candidates beforehand and had made up my mind about who I was supporting. (I am a Bill Richardson supporter.) However, I was open to talking with people who supported other candidates and wanted to understand their rationale for supporting those candidates. I had no ill intentions whatsoever and simply wanted to have a few friendly debates with my fellow Democrats. Maybe I'd learn a thing or two.

I talked with representatives of the Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, and Kucinich campaigns with no problem. I stumped them a few times with my questions, and they stumped me a few times as well. Finally, I decided to talk with the representatives of the Obama campaign. The plurality of people at the debate seemed to consist of Obama supporters, so I was excited about the opportunity to find out what makes these voters support him so passionately.

When I approached the Obama tent, I told them that I was not approaching them in a hostile manner because I was proudly clutching my Bill Richardson sign. One of the men there jokingly asked me what it would take to convert me to an Obama supporter. I told him that I had not quite made up my mind about him yet, but was interested in learning more about him. Then I started asking the staff at the tent a few questions. I listened respectfully to their arguments and agreed with some of what they were saying. We were laughing and having a pretty good and engaging discussion.

However, one woman sitting at the table seemed to be quite annoyed with my presence and interrupted me. She rudely told me that I was not welcome at that tent because "it was for Obama supporters only." Then she asked me to leave. Shocked, I told her that I had a lot of respect for Obama and was optimistic about his candidacy. I also told her that her remarks contradicted Obama’s message of inclusion, but she cut me off and told me again to leave. The woman I was happily talking with earlier then cowardly crept away from me and walked over to the sour woman who told me I was to leave because "I was not an Obama supporter." Not wanting to cause a scene, I left.

Needless to say, my first direct encounter with the Obama campaign left me with a negative impression. However, I thought I'd have a second chance when Obama would come and speak at the rally after the debate.

After 90 minutes of rhetoric, ideas, jokes, gaffes, and insinuations, the candidates sauntered into the gymnasium where the rally was held. The first candidate to come out was Hillary Clinton. She gave a rousing speech and did an excellent job of working the crowd. I was able to get an autograph, as was almost everyone else who had shoved a business card, name placard, or sheet of paper in her face.

The next candidate to address the crowd was Barack Obama. He gave a good speech too and the partisan crowd loved it. But when it was his turn to work the crowd, I was sorely disappointed. He took a few pictures with some of the fans in the crowd, but he signed no autographs and refused all sheets of paper that were thrust at him by the people who had managed to get close enough to him, including photographs, business cards, and sheets of scrap paper for him to sign. He just flashed his pearly whites and waved as screaming fans pleaded for him to sign his autograph.

Then he was gone. Strike two.

Obama, his rude campaign staff, and Obamamania in general did not impress me at all. Obama did not really distinguish himself during the debate, his supporters there could not really articulate why they supported him, one of them was exceptionally rude to me, and Obama himself seemed to take his supporters' adulation for granted. Maybe he didn’t want to shake my hand because I was wearing a Bill Richardson sticker. (Clinton, Biden, and Kucinich had no problem with this.) Maybe he didn't shake my hand because he didn't see me. (I was standing no more than two feet away from him.) Maybe he didn’t acknowledge me because he was too busy. (Apparently he was too busy to acknowledge almost every person there who wanted an autograph, and there weren't that many of us there.)

Or maybe he just didn't care. I really don't want to say anything negative about Obama because I think he could potentially be a great president, but that doesn't change the fact that I was sorely disappointed by all elements of him and his campaign tonight.


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?"

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.