Clinton, Obama And Edwards Shine And Clash In “Personal” South Carolina Debate

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The South Carolina primary debate between Democratic Presidential nomination wannabes Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards was the most peppery “real” debate yet — with moments where it got intensely personal with each candidate seemingly accomplishing some goals.

Clinton and Obama went at it in a debate that was the closest this season yet to a real debate versus the talking-point-regurgitating televised group press conferences that often pass for debates.

The two quickly pounced on each other, needled each other, with Obama spending much time in defense mode and a meticulously-researched Clinton in attack mode. Edwards played the white male in the middle as the two historic candidates battled it out — challenging each with pointed questions.

But the evening will be known for this exchange which pointed out the personal animosities bubbling beneath the surface that bubbled out before the TV cameras. From a transcript provided by CNN:

OBAMA: Hillary, we just had the tape. You just said that I complimented the Republican ideas. That is not true.

What I said — and I will provide you with a quote — what I said was is that Ronald Reagan was a transformative political figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda, an agenda that I objected to. Because while I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.

Later Hillary Clinton replied:

CLINTON: Bad for America, and I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.

Here’s the view of one registered independent voter on how the candidates did:

HILLARY CLINTON CONTINUES TO BLOSSOM AS A NATIONAL CANDIDATE and Republicans are underestimating her at their peril. Even if she didn’t have Bill Clinton running around playing hatchet-man for her she would be formidable. Her way of speaking, grasp of material, ability to show passion, and penchant to go in for the swift and effective attack all underscore her claim that GOPers will find her a highly-tough opponent. She had to show that she could take it to Obama in specifics and she did. She also had to show she could do it without Bill Clinton in the background coming to her defense or handing her notes — and she did.

A response such as the one above (whether you agree with it or not and whether it is accurate or not — and Obama disputed the way it was thrown out) shows a nimbleness that will serve her well if she gets the nomination. Her WORST MOMENT came when Edwards asked her about banning lobbyists from her administration and she skirted the issue. A clear evasion and a portent of what is likely to come if she enters the Oval Office: the lobbyists will change with the administration. Debate advice to Mrs. Clinton: cut the smiles and smirks when Obama talks. Just take notes and speak after.

OBAMA REMAINS A STRONG CANDIDATE SEEMINGLY TRYING TO DO A STYLE OF POLITICS THAT THE CULTURE MAY NOT BE READY TO ACCEPT:
He’s arguing for non-polarization, the politics of inclusion, and a more cerebral approach to politics. The system (the way surrogates are used, witness the Clinton campaign; the angry tone of talk radio; the raging tone of columnists and internet commentary) lends itself to more raw emotion. He had to show that he could stand up to Mrs. Clinton (or, rather The Clintons) and he did.

But the often unspoken problem for Obama is this: he is NOT a great debate performer and he is not really “growing” in the debates as Clinton is growing. His fortéis the inspiring speech. And while speeches are vital in a campaign, debate performance — and not always being on the defensive — is also crucial. Obama’s underpinning theme is that Americans are BETTER than the politics we’ve seen so far. The problem: there are few signs Americans WANT a politics that is more elevated. Negative campaigning, demonization and defining opponents WORKS and WINS support and people enjoy the emotion and conflict.

EDWARDS gave his best debate performance yet. In his questions, he proved to be an equal opportunity challenger. And his good-humor and ease, milking the idea that he was the only white male running against two historic candidates, was classy. Edwards’ answers seemed more sincere than in any of his debates and his passion was just that. There seems virtually zilch chance that Edwards can win the nomination, and it’s unlikely he’d run for Veep again — but look for him to have a high post in a Democratic administration.

Here’s an extensive cross section of news coverage and weblog reaction to the debate:

NEWS MEDIA AND NEWS MEDIA WEBSITE BLOGS

CNN begins its story this way:

Discussions about proposals on the economy and health care were overshadowed by heated exchanges between rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during Monday night’s Democratic debate.

The two Democratic front-runners took shots at each others’ economic plans and criticized the accuracy of recent accusations the two campaigns have traded.

Obama said Clinton’s charge that fiscal responsibility isn’t a priority for him “isn’t true.”

“This is one of the things that has happened in the course of this campaign. There are a set of assertions made by Sen. Clinton as well as her husband that are not factually accurate,” Obama said, raising the criticisms the Clintons made about him in recent days.

“Part of what the people are looking for right now is somebody who is going to solve problems and not resort to the same typical politics that we’ve seen in Washington,” he said.

Clinton replied she was referring to differences in Obama’s position toward the Iraq war. “It was more about the distinction between words and action. And I think that is a fair assessment for voters to make,” she said.

Clinton said it is “sometimes difficult to understand what Sen. Obama has said because as soon as he is confronted on it he says that’s not what he meant.”

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards jumped in, saying “Are there three people in this debate, not two?”


The New York Times’ The Caucus Blog
did (MUST-READ) live blogging, and this is their summary entry:

With all this broken china on the floor, it’s hard to know where to start picking up the pieces. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama showed themselves pretty adept at hurling plates, then reaching into the cabinet and pulling out cups and saucers too.

The audience looked none too happy, and it’s not clear what effect this debate will have on Saturday’s primary here in South Carolina.

But Mrs. Clinton was not playing to the room, or, possibly, even to the state. Even when she was booed, which happened a couple of times, she pressed on, relentlessly, against Mr. Obama. She gave the air of being perfectly comfortable in attack mode. (Has she ceded South Carolina?)

Mr. Obama gave (almost) as good as he got, especially in taking on not only Mrs. Clinton but Bill Clinton. Perhaps with an eye on the huge African-American vote here, he said that the attacks on him showed that a black man had become a credible candidate.

Mr. Edwards turned out to be something of an honest broker tonight. He sided with Mrs. Clinton more than we’ve seen in the past, but not totally, hitting her hard on one of his pet issues — that she would be beholden to corporate lobbyists. Overall, he was relaxed and forceful and not so angry.

The Washington Post’s The Trail blog:

Did Bill Clinton sneak into the Democratic debate in Myrtle Beach? It felt like it during the first hour, at least. Barack Obama took on the former president directly, accusing him of saying things that are “not factually accurate” on the campaign trail, including his charge that Obama did not oppose the war from the start and that his war stance was a “fairy tale.”

And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton did not immediately separate herself from her husband, referring jointly to their charges against Obama as “our criticism.”

“I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes,” Obama said.

In the most explosive Democratic debate so far, Clinton and Obama veered from the assigned topic in the first segment — the economy — to hurl personal slurs and compare records.

The New York Times also noted the personal ire:

In the most intense and personal exchange of the presidential campaign, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama assailed each other’s integrity and voting records during a televised debate on Monday in South Carolina, the site of a critical primary in five days.

If the debate was full of memorable moments — Mrs. Clinton accusing Mr. Obama of associating with a “slum landlord,” Mr. Obama saying he felt as if he was running against both Hillary and Bill Clinton, the two candidates talking over each other — the totality of the attacks also laid bare the ill will and competitive ferocity that has been simmering between them for weeks.

The Chicago Tribune:

The smoldering acrimony between the Democratic presidential front-runners flared openly as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama traded charges in a debate Monday about who is dishonest, who is cowardly and who is doing the bidding of reviled special interests.

The debate was the most fiercely personal of the election season as the candidates showed the strains of a long and bitter campaign. At one point, Obama and Clinton raised their voices over each other to be heard. Each even attacked the other’s biography.

The Nation pointed out that Edwards the arbiter could become Edwards the new option for voters turned off by the Hillary-Obama diss-fest:

And even CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider noticed, saying, “This could be a debate where John Edwards gets back in the game. He’s effectively making his points, while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are in silly squabbles. Voters have too many concerns to care about Obama and Clinton’s political potshots.”

Radio commentator Carl Jeffers agreed, explaining that, “There are a lot of Americans who are turned off by this personal animosity between Clinton and Obama and that benefited John Edwards.”

That was certainly Edwards’ hope.

“The reality of the race is that I am running against two celebrity candidates who have raised over $100 million each. I’m an underdog, but I’m a serious underdog,” the candidate said after the debate, noting that he has won delegates and is continuing to do so despite a lack of media attention. “I think that people who watched this debate with an open mind were probably impressed.”

The question, at a point when everyone seems to be taking sides in an increasingly intense fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, is how many people watched this debate with an open mind. The answer will determine whether John Edwards, who had the best night Monday, will have a good enough night on Saturday in South Carolina to remain the serious player that he deserves to be in this race.

MSNBC First Read’s Chuck Todd:

This was easily the most heated debate to date. The candidates, particularly Obama and Clinton were, well, angry and it got personal. Obama, in particular, seemed to have a lot he wanted to get off his chest.

Obama spent the early part of the night on the defensive, which I’m guessing, wasn’t the game plan. Of course, when you’re the candidate under fire, it usually means you’re the candidate ahead. And in South Carolina, he’s probably ahead. Still, Obama was constantly under attack by both Clinton and, to a degree, Edwards.

Also, Obama consistently got caught in a debate trap by responding to every charge with an explanation. It’s a standup thing to do on one hand, but it ends up putting Obama off message; and it allows for the attack to get more air time rather than the original point or message Obama meant to be heard. Clinton, in contrast, rarely answers a charge directly and instead deflects by counter-punching, which shows her discipline.

Great Britain’s The Guardian:

The race for the Democratic nomination took an ugly turn last night when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama exchanged a series of vicious personal jibes, with each raking up the other’s past to cheers – and boos – from the audience.

Abandoning pledges made last year to fight a civilised campaign focused on policy, the two spent much of the early part of the two-hour debate at Myrtle Beach firing accusations, including that Obama once represented a slum landlord.

The two constantly interrupted one another, questioning each other’s honesty. At one point Clinton was booed when she said that it was impossible to debate with Obama because he would not give a straight answer.

Such personal exchanges are dangerous for candidates, often turning off voters. As if realising they had gone too far, the two spent the latter part of the debate calling each by their first names and exchanging jokes and pleasantries.

Although only Clinton was booed, both may have been damaged by the exchanges.

The Los Angeles Times’ blog:

What a difference a week (or, more precisely, just six days) can make.

When the Democratic presidential candidates gathered last Tuesday in Las Vegas for a debate after several days of racially tinged bickering between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and their surrogates, the two candidates decided to take a step back and cool the tensions.

Tonight in South Carolina, with potentially make-or-break contests in the party’s presidential race looming, the gloves came off quickly.

A CROSS-SECTION OF WEBLOG REACTION:

--Vodkapundit:

I’d entertained thoughts of voting for Clinton or Obama next November. Tonight’s debate — the “I’m More Dangerously Populist Than Thou” debate — ended all chances of that happening.

That’s not to say that the Republican nominee has my vote. Far from it. But I’ll chew off my own forehead before I vote for either of those left wing knuckleheads, much less special guest John Edwards.

If tonight’s debate was any small indicator of how the Democratic nominee will run in the general election, then I’d say the Republican nominee has some small chance of winning. And that’s no small feat, given that tonight Clinton and Obama were only fighting over South Carolina.

Andrew Sullivan:

It’s between three people: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton. The Clintons attacked tonight with a vehemence that is usually reserved to candidates who are struggling. The nature of the attacks was also deeply partisan: the assault on Obama’s kind words for Reagan’s transformational presidency and the scorn for his ability to respect the ideas that have emerged from the right. This was an attempt to anathematize Obama with the core Democratic base. That’s now the Clintons’ central strategy: to rally their core voters against the pretender to their throne.

The second is that Clinton now automatically uses the first person plural. It’s not the Royal “we”. It’s an empirical “we”…Yes, this “we” implies a team behind a candidacy. But it also reflects the unitary thinking of the biggest power-couple in America. Obama showed – in a way never before asked of a presidential candidate – that he could take on both a major rival and the last president of his party. To win, he has to take on and defeat them both. That’s a tall order.

Steve Clemons has an extensive post on The Huffington Post that must be read IN FULL. Some of it:

I have to go with my own filters, not those of others — and to me, regardless of who one supported tonight, it’s clear that each scored points but that Hillary Clinton performed with an authority, presence in that huge hall, and mastery of detail that was just second to none. She hammered Bush on the semi-secret deal he’s trying to rig with the Iraqi government to commit American troops and bases indefinitely — something the others did not mention. She had numbers and details flowing forth as if they were as natural as could be.

…And while I didn’t like Hillary raising the slum lord issue with Obama, I was surprised to hear him refer to Rezko as “that individual.” That individual is someone Barack Obama has known for 17 years and someone who has raised more than $14 million for him and who was on his Senate campaign finance organization. Now Hillary Clinton had Norman Hsu — but while I didn’t expect Obama to embrace Rezko, he might have just said that he was surrounded (as they all are) by people who are not always what they seem to be. At that moment, Barack Obama using “that individual” sounded a lot like — well — you know who. . .But in my view, Hillary Clinton turned in the best performance tonight. Then came Barack Obama, and close after though not enough came John Edwards.

Matt Stoller:

Democrats are going crazy. I’m hearing from friends in DC, friends that are mostly apolitical, and blog friends that the tone of the primary is just vicious. Beyond that, it’s not just the candidates, but supporters have now become nuts. And the tone of the debate is just vicious. Barack Obama is basically calling Bill and Hillary Clinton liars, Obama attacked Clinton for being a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Walmart, and they are each misrepresenting the facts.

Where’s The Outrage:

I’m too through with the “I said,” “I never said,”and “she said.” Hillary has taken a page right out of the Karl Rove playbook. She has twisted Obama’s words. Barack Obama never said that he loved the Republicans. He never said that. (look at this post for the video and listen to what he really said) Instead, he said that Reagan was an agent of change. This is true. I hate the analogy but it is true. I would have used Gandhi or Teddy Roosevelt as agents of change. Unfortunately, those references would have sent some to the internet and would have left other scratching their heads. What Hillary has done is not politics. It is down right nasty and dishonest.

--Nelson Guirado:

Hillary’s attacks are ineffective because they all sound like opposition research stuff. In other words, it’s obvious that Hillary gave the command to “find something on Obama.”

Obama was fine. He showed some strength in responding and spoke well. he was the funniest.

Edwards rubs me the wrong way. Obsequious, smiley sweet, and attacking while at the same time saying that people don’t want to hear squabbles. Did he not hear Obama say that voting “present” was a tactical thing. Why repeat it? And, every debate, he has some kind of weepy story.

–Pat Dollard’s post includes this:

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1 Comment

  1. “Shine and clash”? Actually, make up your mind!

    Let the rats attack and eat each other. It's perverse fun to observe it.

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