Clinton’s Foes Pillory Hillary At Democratic Debate (UPDATED)

It was crystal-clear at tonight’s debate who the perceived front-runner was for the 2008 Democratic Party presidential nomination.

They ganged up on her:

With just over two months until the first primary contest, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Democratic rivals aggressively challenged their party’s front-runner here Tuesday night, accusing her of being dishonest and of emboldening President Bush to declare war against Iran.

Former senator John Edwards (N.C.), lingering in third place in most polls, took the lead in attacking Clinton as Democrats gathered for the fourth of their six official debates. He mocked Clinton for voting to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group, and all but accused her of being corrupt.

Voters, Edwards said, “deserve a president of the United States that they know will tell them the truth, and won’t say one thing one time and something different at a different time.”

But if Edwards was going for her jugular (with no sign so far that his tougher tactics are really working in terms of a huge increase in poll numbers), Senator Barack Obama seemed to turn aside the pundits’ pre-debate advice and confirm that he does INDEED believe in a less-personal, less-demonizing form of politics (which is why he probably will not get the nomination). The Washington Post again:

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) — under pressure to take sharp aim at Clinton — criticized her directly for not releasing her correspondence as first lady. But he kept his cool demeanor, describing her tendency toward secrecy as simply “a problem.”

The most telling exchange came minutes before the debate ended, when Clinton declined to answer repeated questions about whether she supported New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer’s proposal to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, after earlier suggesting that she did. Edwards pounced, arguing that Clinton had offered evasiveness when Americans want honesty and consistency from their leaders. “What we’ve had seven years is double talk from Bush and Cheney, and I think America deserves us to be straight,” he said.

So it’s clear Edwards, who in 2004 insisted he wanted a loftier form of politics, has revised his playbook to do what the conventional wisdom says is needed to win (do whatever it takes). The New York Times noted that Edwards had seemingly morphed into the debater that some had urged Obama to become:

The tone of the debate, which was sponsored by NBC News, had been established before the candidates walked onto the stage at Drexel University in Philadelphia, when Senator Barack Obama of Illinois proclaimed in an interview over the weekend that “now is the time” to begin drawing tough distinctions with Mrs. Clinton.

He did so almost immediately, accusing Mrs. Clinton of “changing positions whenever it’s politically convenient,” pointing to the North American Free Trade Agreement, torture and the war on Iraq. “Now, that may be politically savvy, but I don’t think that it offers the clear contrast that we need,” Mr. Obama said. “I think what we need right now is honestly with the American people about where we would take the country.”

But for all the attention Mr. Obama drew to himself coming into the debate, he was frequently overshadowed by former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who — speaking more intensely — repeatedly challenged Mrs. Clinton’s credentials and credibility, and frequently seemed to make the case against Mrs. Clinton that Mr. Obama had promised to make.

USA Today’s piece covered the debate and had this tidbit:

One Clinton supporter viewed her competitors’ attacks as good news. “My granddaddy used to say, ‘If you get kicked in the rear, that means you’re out front,’ ” said Bill Gray, a former Philadelphia congressman and one of the state’s most prominent African-American politicians.

One of the most interesting accounts is on the New York Times blog (which is an excellent newspaper weblog):

It’s not only Republicans who are obsessed with Hillary Rodham Clinton, but the Democrats too. She was central to virtually every question and every answer for a good part of the debate.

At several points, she sounded firm but did not take a firm position. This was most striking in the final moments of the debate on the question of whether illegal immigrants should be able to get drivers’ licenses.

Her supporters will likely say that the evening was evidence of a savvy, experienced pol who will give herself room to maneuver and not commit to something that might come back to bite her; her detractors will say it was evidence of her trying to be all things to all people. Some might call it “general-election mode.

And this:

What of the much-anticipated Obama offense? He was better at pointing out Mrs. Clinton’s muddled answers than he was at disagreeing with her. In other words, he seemed more comfortable when he raised questions about whether she was being evasive. One example: when he jumped in to say that if she was going to use her period as First Lady as evidence of her experience, she needed to open up those records from her White House years.

Still, he has an amiable quality about him that seems to resist the whole messy business. That might raise questions about how tough he would be in the Oval Office.

And what was the reaction from our vantage point here in San Diego, America’s Finest Fieriest City?

This is purely subjective (as all blog reaction is) but here are some observations from this independent voter:

1. For a debate, it was a lively one but was still Snoozeville. Part of that is due to the excruciating format of the debate with often-smirking moderators. Someone emerging from a time machine from 1960 would not think they were watching the Kennedy-Nixon debates without Kennedy and Nixon. Another reason it was zzzzzzzzzz is that most candidates seemingly rush to verbally puke-up scripted statements provided to them by their handlers (who should back off and handle them less). Or perhaps it was due to gadfly candidate Alaska Senator Mike Gravel’s absence.

2. Hillary Clinton increasingly comes across as smart, professional, competent, sturdy and even (yes) likable on television. Republicans who are praying for her to be the candidate may perhaps find they are making the same mistake made by Democrats who prayed that Ronald Reagan, a man they felt was an old fogey has-been, grade-B movie actor and a too-conservative-and-out-of-the-mainstream California governor, would run against the (ever-hapless) President Jimmy Carter. The fact is, Clinton is LEARNING and IMPROVING with each appearance — becoming a more effective television communicator. (Update: See links below because many others DISAGREE with this assessment.)

3. Barack Obama comes across as smart, likable but, increasingly, as someone who may need a bit more seasoning.The charisma he has as a speaker is absent during debates.

4. John Edwards says all the aggressive words, has the body language and the looks but still seems to be not as effective on the tube as he is said to be in person or in the courtroom. An underachiever in 2004…an underachiever in 2007. His negativity makes some points but also grates.

5. Dennis Kucinich continues on the path to being the favorite poster-boy for the Democratic Party’s far left. His comment about Bush having possible mental health problems on Iran is as reprehensible as some of the things far right talk show hosts say about Democrats. If he had been a Republican saying that about a Democrat, many Democrats would be up in arms but since political consistency means little in 21st-century America, he’ll probably be applauded in some quarters for implying Bush might need a shrink.

6. Senator Joe Biden continues to emit an aura of someone who marches to his own drummer and, if people don’t like it, they can take his drumstick and shove it…Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd is thought-provoking and makes valuable points but comes across on TV as a spokesman for an AARP ad (image matters in communication)… Governor Bill Richardson remains the most non-telegenic candidate and the sloppiest in terms of exceeding his time limit and seeming to be giving “canned” responses. It’s a pity because he is one of the most intelligent political leaders on the national scene. Richardson is to centrist politics and governors what actor Nathan Lane is to Broadway — and he is to television debates what Nathan Lane is to movies.

GO TO THESE LINKS FOR SOME REACTION FROM BLOGS OF DIFFERING VIEWS:

Marc Ambinder, Crooks and Liars, Riehl World View, Talk Left (live blogging), Kevin Drum, My DD, Slog (live blogging), Tennessee Guerrilla Women, Sharon Cobb, Lonewacko, E Pluribus Unum (gives Edwards very high marks and provides a ton of like-minded links), Huffington Post (live blogging), The Crossed Pond (thinks Hillary flopped), Unlikely Words.


UPDATE:

The Politico’s Roger Simon says Clinton bombed bigtime.

Ed Morrissey says not that only did Hillary do poorly, but her answer on the immigration issue means that’s the issue the Republicans will use against her.

No More Mister Nice Blog has the best line:

All of the Republican candidates for president believe that the greatest threat America faces is a Hillary Clinton presidency — and apparently all but one of the Democratic candidates for president agree.

Firedoglake says going negative on Clinton is a mistake.

Pop culture thinks it was “swallow the leader.”

Starked DC

Andrew Sullivan says Clinton lost the debate and Edwards won. Key quotes:

The obvious loser was Senator Clinton. Her constant calculation, careful parsing, avoidance of direct answers to direct questions: all these were reminders of a pure politician. She’s obviously capable, extremely intelligent, and so hollow you could almost hear the focus-grouped platitudes echo within her. She also lost that new-Clinton benign smile, that newly poll-tested glow. Instead we got an occasionally droning, lecturing, and unrelenting stream of tight-faced opportunism.

….The winner was clearly Edwards. He was concise, aggressive, completely right about Clinton and always on point. He seemed unafraid to take her on, while Obama was still playing a too-careful defense. If I were to give an instant sum-up of the debate – and I’m a blogger so it’s my job – it would be that Clinton’s profound weakness as a general election candidate was pretty badly exposed. And the main alternative just about survived as a credible presidential candidate.

skippy