Showing posts with label mike gravel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mike gravel. Show all posts


Roadmaps to the Nomination (D)

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote an excellent analysis about how national polling obscures the true state of the presidential race. By looking at the national polls, one would think that Hillary Clinton was light years ahead of the rest of the field and that Rudy Giuliani was favored to win the GOP nomination.

However, the polls in the early voting states suggest a far more competitive race. In Iowa, for example, Hillary Clinton is in a real dogfight with John Edwards and Barack Obama while Mitt Romney dominates the Republican field.

As Rothenberg suggested, these Iowa polls are far more meaningful than the national polls because voters in Oregon, Georgia, Nebraska, and Connecticut (whose opinions are reflected in national polling data) really haven't been exposed to the presidential race nearly as much as the voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have. People in Des Moines, Concord, Dubuque, and Nashua have had multiple chances to meet the presidential candidates. They've been able to benefit from intense retail politicking, town halls, meet-ups, and house parties featuring the various candidates.

Having said that, some candidates are obviously better positioned to win the nomination than others. In this post, I'll assess the various Democrats' chances at getting a crack at the White House next November. Keep in mind that these are only my opinions about these candidates' path to the nomination, not the presidency itself. The percentage listed after each candidate's name is how likely I think that candidate is to win the Democratic nomination.

Hillary Clinton (60%)

Of all eight declared Democratic candidates, Clinton has the easiest path to the nomination. Her national polling is exceptionally strong and she is commonly seen as the inevitable or de facto nominee. Having said that, the two places where she is most vulnerable are South Carolina and Iowa. If Clinton manages to win Iowa, I honestly don't see how any other candidate could stop her. New Hampshire, the site of the second contest, serves as a buffer state for her because she's running quite strongly there. So an Iowa victory would be reinforced by a New Hampshire victory, which should give her enough political inertia to win South Carolina. If this happens, it's game over for the other candidates.

Clinton also has the war chest and campaign organization to survive a prolonged battle should she lose some of the early states. It's a well known fact that in politics, name recognition matters. And with the millions and millions of dollars sitting in her coffers, she will be better able to redefine her political opponents than they can.

Losing Iowa and South Carolina obviously would be devastating to her campaign, but not fatal because of her name recognition and campaign cash. However, there are other variables that could submarine her campaign that are out of her control. In the privacy of the voting booth or when it's actually time to caucus, will voters simply decide that they want to make a clean break from the Bush-Clinton snipping? Will voters simply decide that she's not as electable as they had originally thought? Is there a contingent of voters who simply won't vote for a female even though they've "supported" her campaign thus far?

In short, Clinton's roadmap to the nomination offers much more room for error than the other candidates', but she is not as invincible as she'd like to have others believe.

Barack Obama (20%)

Obama is generally running in second in most polls. The most important state for him is South Carolina, which has a large percentage of Black voters who will participate in the Democratic primary. If he loses Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina will be his make or break state. It is highly unlikely that Obama will sweep Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. However, to win the nomination, he needs to win at least South Carolina and one other state. If he can basically split the early states, he will have the money and the momentum to compete with Clinton nationally.

One factor going for Obama that is difficult to quantify is how broad his support really is. It is no secret that Obama performs best among younger voters. This is a big deal because these voters (the 18-30 crowd) often don't have regular phone service. Polling companies generally don't call cell phones (which younger people are more likely to use), which means Obama's support might be underrepresented in the polls. Obama definitely has legions of dedicated supporters and they are turning out to his events in staggering numbers. If John Edwards gets knocked out in Iowa and no other candidate emerges, the race for the nomination truly will be Clinton vs. Obama, which would pit the establishment, experience, and Clintonian toughness against something bold, new, and different.

John Edwards (10%)

In a word, John Edwards' chances come down to one word and one word only: Iowa. Second place is not good enough for him there. John Edwards must win Iowa. It's the state he's placed all his chips in. It's the state where he's done the bulk of his campaigning. He must win the Iowa caucuses. And that's just to survive. Edwards will likely be hamstrung for cash, especially in light of his recent decision to accept public financing for his campaign.

To win, Edwards will need Obama to fizzle. If he can seize Obama's mantle of being the true "change" candidate, he can ride the outsider populist message to a one-on-one battle against Clinton. Interestingly, Clinton is more of a hawk on terrorism than Edwards is even though their genders may initially lead voters to think otherwise. If there are voters who are reluctant to vote for Clinton because they fear she's not going to be tough on terrorism and defense, how will they vote if their alternative is John Edwards, who seems more dovish, as he views keeping combat troops in Iraq to fight terrorism as a way of "continuing the war" there?

Having said that, Edwards is definitely in touch with the issues on the minds of a lot of voters, namely health insurance and poverty. It all begins with Iowa and using a victory there to give him momentum in South Carolina, his home state and the first Southern state to have a primary contest. John Edwards must win Iowa and then must win South Carolina in order to remain viable. However, his lack of fundraising and his decision to opt for public financing will really put him at a disadvantage if Clinton is the last candidate standing.

So to summarize, Edwards must win Iowa, place at least second in New Hampshire, win South Carolina, have Obama underperform in all three states, and then enter Super Tuesday with strong momentum and Clinton burning through her war chest quickly to even stand a chance at winning the nomination.

Joe Biden (5%)

Joe Biden is in an interesting position right now. He commonly registers about 3-5 percent in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, which is outside of the margin of error. So there is definitely a small core of voters in his camp. However, Biden also has a large number of endorsements from members of the Iowa state legislature who have endorsed his campaign. If all politics is local, then this could work to Biden's advantage, as Iowa's voters may give the opinions of their local leaders more credence than the national pundits'. His message on Iraq is definitely the most realistic one out there and is also the only one out there that has generated significant Republican support. Biden needs to stress this.

Like Richardson, Biden has said that he needed to place in the top 3 in Iowa in order to continue his campaign. In order to do this, Biden needs voters to take a pass on Richardson and have the messages of Obama, Edwards, and Clinton blurred regarding Iraq and Iran. If he can convince voters that Obama and Edwards are oversimplifying Iraq while using Clinton's Iran vote against her, Biden may gain credibility in the eyes of voters, thus allowing him to adopt the "change" and "leadership" mantles. However, the "change" Biden would be selling would be a "change" back to competence and straight talk, words that are generally not used to describe George Bush. To bring down Clinton, he would need to continue working the polarization argument of her not being able to generate much Republican support for any of her legislation. He can also turn her refusal to engage in "hypotheticals" against her as demonstrating a lack of leadership. Pragmatic voters may respond to this.

In short, despite his weaker fundraising, I believe Biden is better positioned than Richardson because of his endorsements and his consistently stronger debate performances. If he can place second or third in Iowa while knocking out Richardson and Obama (or Edwards), it will be much easier for him to distinguish himself in New Hampshire. He could more easily distinguish himself if his main rivals are only Clinton and Obama or Clinton and Edwards. Having Richardson, Dodd, and all the other candidates in the field only create interference that makes his message harder to get out.

Bill Richardson (3%)

Richardson has said that he must place in the top 3 in Iowa, otherwise he would drop out of the race. This is not an impossible task. He has raised a respectable amount of campaign cash and has improved his name recognition, courtesy of his humorous "Job Interview" ads. He has the best resume of all the Democrats running and could be an electoral nightmare for the GOP, as he would be difficult to label as a liberal. And he's more credible on guns than both Romney and Giuliani. However, he has underwhelmed in the debates, much to the disappointment of his supporters.

To place in the top three, Richardson needs to lump Edwards and Obama together as being too inexperienced regarding foreign policy to be trusted with the presidency. He should also use their inability to guarantee a complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq by 2013 as another avenue of attack that should appeal to antiwar voters. Clinton is a bit more difficult to attack on inexperience, so he could emphasize his ability to bring different groups together as New Mexico's governor and contrast this with Clinton's polarization.

Richardson has an outside chance to place in the top 3. If he does, he is fairly well positioned to do as well in New Hampshire (he's polling a strong 4th there) and Nevada (a Western state with a large Hispanic population). If Richardson is one of the final three candidates standing after Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire, his argument that he embodies both "change" and "experience" could resonate with voters, since the other two candidates would likely be Clinton and either Obama or Edwards.

Chris Dodd (1.5%)

Dodd is generally registering at 1 percent in most polls. He hasn't really distinguished himself in the debates so far, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Because he is largely undefined, he can benefit from low expectations. Dodd's biggest weapon is his campaign war chest. Dodd needs Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Richardson, and Biden all to beat up on each other enough and deplete their resources before jumping into the fray and using his own money to go on offense once everyone else has been bloodied.

Although I have not been able to find any information about how long Dodd plans to stay in the race, I'd imagine that he would go as far as New Hampshire before dropping out. New Hampshire is close to his home state of Connecticut, so perhaps he has built up a reservoir of goodwill among the voters there, but he seems to be struggling to register in the polls there as well.

In short, Dodd needs to sit back and let the other candidates destroy each other. When they are all weakened, he can use his campaign cash to portray himself as an unpolarizing elder statesman. Maybe that will be enough to get him to place third in Iowa, but it's hard to see him doing any better than that.

Dennis Kucinich (.5%)

For antiwar liberals, Kucinich's ideological purity has been refreshing to listen to. However, outside of this wing of the party, Kucinich is not seen as a credible candidate. The only scenario I can envision that has Kucinich becoming a serious threat would be if there were some sort of groundswell of antiwar voters who were railing against the status quo. And it would have to take place in state after state.

Mike Gravel (0%)

For this favorite of late night comedians to win, Gravel needs all of the other candidates to drop out of the race, hope Al Gore does not jump in the race, and then hope Mickey Mouse does not emerge as a write-in candidate somewhere along the way. Gravel has made a lot of strong and insightful arguments, but he is not a credible candidate.


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.


Iran: Knee-Jerk Psychology

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently sought to visit Ground Zero during his visit to New York for a United Nations summit. He wanted to lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site in honor of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The New York City Police Department reviewed his request, but ultimately denied it citing security concerns. Various presidential candidates weighed in and blasted the Iranian president's "outrageous" request and called him a "state sponsor of terrorism." I watched MSNBC's "Morning Joe" this morning and they expressed similar sentiments.

Seeing that Ahmadinejad has made no secret about his desire to seek nuclear power and that he has made several controversial and incendiary remarks, such as "wiping Israel off the map" and denying the Holocaust, it is no surprise that politicians and the public reacted so vehemently to his request to visit the site of the World Trade Center. However, while this knee-jerk reaction of anger towards the Iranian president may make us feel good for standing up to someone we consider an enemy, I believe it is symptomatic of a larger problem with the American psyche that we are either unaware of or simply don't want to address.

Obviously, I am not saying this to defend Ahmadinejad at the expense of the United States. However, there was a huge missed opportunity here.

President Bush has called Iran part of an "axis of evil." Lots of neoconservatives and even some of the current presidential candidates have alluded to launching a preemptive attack on Iran. The United States maintains no diplomatic relations with Iran. We view Iran as one of the main enemies of one of our most important allies, Israel. We stress that Iran cannot pursue nuclear technology and that if they develop nuclear weapons, we will attack them. In short, the United States has made its disdain for Iran perfectly clear.

Despite this, the Iranian president sought to visit the site of the worst terrorist attack in history and lay a wreath there in honor of the victims. While we may never know his true motives, the fact is he acted in a way that is incongruent with the negative way in which we portray him. Ahmadinejad can now go back to Iran and tell his government and the Iranian people that he tried to extend an olive branch to the United States, but was shot down. So he could plausibly state that the United States is the belligerent nation, not Iran. Young Iranians (those in their 20s and 30s) who are not hostile to America like Iranians from the previous generation will then be given a reason to think less favorably about this nation while placing a bit more confidence in their own leader. Why should we expect the Iranians to listen to our demands about major issues like their military and nuclear technology if we won't even honor their request to visit the site of an international tragedy? Even if the United States wouldn't let him enter Ground Zero itself, would it have been too difficult for them to at least let him see the site from behind a fence or a block away?

Had the United States (I say the United States because I'm sure the New York Police Department was acting as its surrogate) allowed Ahmadinejad to visit Ground Zero, that may have led to a slight thawing of the ice between the two countries. At the very least, it may have given both countries some much needed breathing space as they jockey and posture and rattle their sabres.

Yes, Ahmadinejad is not the poster child of peace, liberty, and human rights. However, the United States should not worry about losing a propoganda battle to Iran. And Democrats and Republicans alike have repeatedly said that 9-11 should not be politicized. However, thumping their chests about how "the dangerous Iranian president should not be allowed to visit this sacred ground" is doing just that. It may win them a few votes, but it doesn't do anything to improve relations between the two countries.

Having lived abroad, I can easily understand that it is foolish to classify nations and politicians as "friends" and "enemies." When you do this, people are less inclined to respect or work with you. The world is much more complicated than "good" and "bad," and any politician who tries to simplify such matters is doing a terrible disservice. President Bush has taken his "either you're with us or against us" rhetoric and led large swaths of the nation to think in a similarly bimodal fashion.

Interestingly, although Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel may have been reduced to a common punchline on late night television and stands no chance of winning his party's presidential nomination, his views on our policy towards Iran and terrorism are particularly prescient.

Be careful of overly simplistic knee-jerk thinking. That is what got us into Iraq and may potentially be what gets us into Iran, but it won't be what gets us out of Iraq responsibly, nor will it be what resolves the Iranian conflict sensibly. Wisdom is more important than pride.


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.


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)


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 Horserace (D)

The second quarter fundraising totals are out and there are a few surprises.

First and foremost, Barack Obama raised the most cash between April and June--an impressive $30+ million haul. More significantly is the fact that this money came from over 250,000 donors. Hillary Clinton raised more than $20 million, most of which coming from a smaller cadre of mega-donors. This is significant because it suggests that Obama's support is broader. It also gives him a larger network from which he can solicit more funds.

John Edwards finished third with about $9 million and Bill Richardson raised about $7 million. Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, Mike Gravel, and Dennis Kucinich raised under $4 million each.

What does this mean?

This means Obama must be taken seriously. People may criticize him for being inexperienced and for being a blank slate that speaks in platitudes without saying anything of substance. And he hasn't been able to overtake Hillary Clinton in the polls. However, he is still generating large crowds and is getting a lot of people involved in his campaign who are new to politics. The importance of this cannot be overstressed.

Obama is clearly making a connection with voters. It could be because he is the first Black candidate with a legitimate shot at winning the presidency, but I think there's more to him than that. Obama, despite his inexperience, seems to truly be a person who remembers where he came from and seems much more genuine. And it's not just rhetoric either. Obama is one of the few senators who has consistently shunned earmarks, or pet projects. He ventures into the neighborhoods that other politicians generally ignore. And he is giving regular people significant roles in helping organize his campaign, as is evidenced by his "friends" on MySpace and Facebook.

Clinton may have the establishment's support, but Obama truly seems to be a man of the people. He's not going away. But he's going to have to be a bit more aggressive in his campaigning if he wants to overtake Clinton because she is not going to shoot herself in the foot and allow him to overtake her. Her strategy should be to just run out the clock and engage the Republicans, as opposed to her Democratic rivals.

However, Obama's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. Obama has prided himself on running a positive campaign because "voters are sick of negativity and cynicism." And this message resonates with voters who desperately want Republicans and Democrats to get along and get something done. However, if he were to run an attack ad on Clinton, she could retaliate by saying Obama does not practice what he preaches. So he is stuck in a box.

John Edwards is in trouble. $9 million is a bit underwhelming for a supposed top-tier candidate. His campaign has basically come down to Iowa. If he fails to win that state, his campaign is finished. Edwards has been making a few tactical errors that are preventing him from getting his message out. One of these errors is engaging Ann Coulter, as his wife did on a recent edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC. John Edwards will never be able to convert Coulter's followers, so he should stop wasting his time because all he's doing is firing up her base and the Republicans. Democratic voters who are sick of Coulter are probably in Obama's camp simply because she represents what Obama rails against.

Another problem for Edwards is his falling poll numbers. He is now in danger of being overtaken by Bill Richardson in New Hampshire. If Richardson had raised $2 million more during the 2nd quarter, Edwards would have had to deal with a rash of stories about how a second-tier candidate raised more campaign cash than he did. For Edwards to get back on the right track, I think he would be wise to spend his time in Iowa and Florida. South Carolina might be a little too tough for him to win even though he's a native son because of the strength of Hillary Clinton and the Black vote going to Obama. Edwards might be a good fit for Floridians, however, because of his favorable geography and the high population of White retirees. He also needs to spend less time with this tit for tat with Ann Coulter because she's a loose cannon that is not even worth using as an effective foil. After all, when TV stations spend time talking about the latest spat between Edwards and Coulter, that's less time being spent talking about Edwards and health care, Iraq, and labor.

Bill Richardson is slowly seeing his fortunes improve. He seems to have separated himself from Joe Biden and Chris Dodd and is now just a half step behind John Edwards. He is rising in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls. And while his debate performances have not been stellar in terms of charisma, he has definitely shown that he is executive material based on the thoroughness of his responses to the debate questions. Voters who yearn for competence may be responding well to Richardson. If this is the case, then President Bush is Richardson's greatest ally.

Richardson is well-positioned for a breakthrough. Edwards is fading. Obama is threatening Hillary's aura of invincibility. Once this aura is shattered, her campaign is in serious trouble because her campaign strategy is to prevent attrition since she will have great difficulty attracting new voters. What if Obama takes out Hillary and people then worry about Obama's lack of heft in the experience department? That might give Richardson the opening he needs. A strong showing in Iowa and Nevada should help launch his campaign.

Joe Biden and Chris Dodd are doing all they can reasonably be expected to do, but the writing is on the wall. There just isn't enough oxygen left for them. Biden in particular would have been better off running for president in '04 when the field was much weaker. Had he done so, he wouldn't have had to deal with Hillary and Obama. He has nothing to lose by staying in the race though. Perhaps he knows he has a 1% chance of winning the nomination, so maybe he's auditioning for Secretary of State?

Chris Dodd has also been campaigning hard and meeting the right people. But he seems to be the generic Democrat that has no real niche or identity in this campaign. Hillary is Hillary and needs no further explanation. Obama is the new kid on the block with all the buzz. Edwards is the former vice presidential nominee. Richardson has the Latino angle working for him. Even Biden has gained a reputation as the funny guy who occasionally puts his foot in his mouth. But what is Dodd known for? After the Kerry debacle, are Democratic voters really looking for another career senator from the Northeast?

Dennis Kucinich is not going to be the Democratic nominee. However, the more he presses his case against the Iraq War and for impeaching Vice President Cheney, the greater his chances are of becoming a liberal kingmaker. Do the other more credible candidates want to be hounded by journalists asking if they support impeaching Cheney like Kucinich does? Who wants to be labeled as the politician who has less courage than Kucinich, "the liberal peacenik?"

Mike Gravel has worn out his welcome. He was entertaining at first, but now his 15 minutes of fame are over. I think voters would appreciate it if he dropped out so that future debates would be more meaningful. If he stays in the race, he could help the other candidates by making them seem moderate or reasonable by comparison.

Meanwhile, Al Gore's name is still floating around out there. He will not enter the race if both Obama and Edwards are still viable in the fall. But if one or both of them fade, look for him to take up the mantle of the non-Hillary candidate. Gore is the biggest threat to Clinton because he has much more experience, is much less polarizing, and reminds voters of the Clinton years without being tainted by nearly as much of the Clinton baggage. A Gore candidacy will single-handedly eliminate Richardson, Dodd, and Biden because they are all trying to position themselves as accomplished, veteran statesmen--something Obama, Edwards, and Clinton are not.

The next Democratic debate is on July 23. Time is definitely running out for the second-tier candidates. The Iowa caucuses are only six months away now and Hillary's lead is solidifying. Someone needs to throw some punches, and quick. While the candidates should be commended for having generally civil debates so far, that benefits no one except for Hillary.


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.


The Legend of Mike Gravel

The most colorful figure in last week's Democratic presidential debate was former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel (official campaign site). From the very beginning he established himself as the unvarnished loose cannon who was not afraid to speak truth to power. Seeing that he really had nothing to lose, he came out with his guns a-blazing.

But did he actually hit any targets?

In my estimation, he actually did.

Let's be clear. Mike Gravel is not going to be the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee. However, he has already made a tremendous impact on the psychology of Democrats and Democratic legislators.

Let me explain. During the debate, Gravel fielded a question about how he would resolve the conflict. He said we should "get out" because "the Iraqis don't want us there, but we insist on staying!" He then said he would "make it a felony" for Bush to continue to prosecute this war and urged the other Democrats on stage to pass a law instead of a resolution to achieve this. After all, he reminded everyone, Bush said earlier that America was not pulling out of Iraq on his watch and that it would be a decision for "future presidents" to make.

That certainly got liberal antiwar Democrats fired up.

But then he went a step further. He said Pelosi didn't have to worry because she had the votes in the House of Representatives to keep passing bills ending the war. But for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), he said he should show some backbone and not worry about Republicans' threats of filibustering. Instead, he should schedule a cloture vote every day to get that bill passed. And if he did that while the Republicans continued to filibuster or Bush continued to veto this legislation, "it would be clear to everyone who was prolonging this war." (That's not an exact quote because I don't have the debate transcript with me, but that's the gist of what he said.)

And you know what? That's close to what the Democrats are going to do now. Even though Bush said he would veto the bill, the Democrats have said they will send him the bill anyway. Some Democrats have suggested they will send him the bill several times. I am not sure if they adopted this strategy before or after the debate, but at the very least, even if this idea did not come from Gravel himself, he still forcefully advocated this approach, which likely did not fall on deaf ears.

And by doing this, he showed the Democrats how to fight.

There's some debate about whether longshots should be allowed to participate in presidential debates because they often take precious time away from more viable candidates to express their positions. However, they can be beneficial in that they can throw more established candidates off script. In Gravel's case, it may behoove Democrats to keep him on the stage at the debates because he may be quite instructional to his colleagues in Washington and activists everywhere. Of course, Republicans will love to give Gravel as much exposure as possible because it would allow them to tar all Democrats as "far left lunatics." But I think most responsible voters see Gravel as a fringe candidate based on his lack of decorum alone.

National Journal was really miffed by his "rudeness" and dropped him from their biweekly race rankings. I think that's a mistake. My view is that knowledge is everywhere. You just have to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Even if Gravel comes across as something less than what is commonly considered senatorial or presidential, his advice about resolving the Iraq impasse suggests to me that people are giving him far less credit than he deserves.

Update: According to Parker (check the comments to this post), John Edwards advocated the exact same approach that Mike Gravel mentioned in the debate. Again, according to Parker, John Edwards stated this on NPR "about a month ago." If John Edwards owns this strategy, then Mike Gravel may have further validated it. At the very least, this is very favorable for John Edwards and really puts Barack Obama on the spot.


Post-debate, post-fish fry: Final Statistics

Final tally after the debate and the fish fry:

Hillary Clinton: One handshake, one autograph, no conversation, no picture

Barack Obama: One handshake with Obama's wife, no handshake with Obama himself, one refused autograph, one refused business card, no conversation, no picture

John Edwards: He did not show up at the post-debate rally. And although he was at the fish fry, I was unable to meet him.

Bill Richardson: One handshake, one accepted business card, one conversation, one autograph, one picture

Joe Biden: Two handshakes, one picture, no autograph, two conversations, one accepted business card, one funny compliment for my wife

Chris Dodd: He did not show up at the post-debate rally. And although he was at the fish fry, I was unable to meet him.

Dennis Kucinich: One handshake, one autograph, one picture, one long conversation, one accepted business card

Mike Gravel: He did not show up at the post-debate rally and did not attend the fish fry.

If I had to choose one word or phrase to describe the candidates based on my impressions of them over the past two days, this is what I'd say:

Clinton: Disciplined. "I am a machine. You cannot beat me, and I will not beat myself."

Obama: Hollow. "Who am I? I am you! Except when I'm not."

Edwards: Sniper. "Let Clinton and Obama bloody each other up. When they finish, take a good look at who's still standing."

Richardson: Executive. "Forget this American Idol BS. Look, I've gone to Darfur and North Korea. These other people haven't. End of story. Wake up, people!"

Dodd: Invisible. "I have many good ideas and am pleading with you to listen. Hello? Are you listening? Hello?"

Biden: Loose. "Play hard, work harder."

Kucinich: Sincere. "You are all my equals."

Gravel: Yikes. "Here! Catch the grenade!"

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.

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.