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Posted by on Apr 26, 2007 in Politics | 29 comments

Unexciting Democratic Primary Debate Shows Promising and Unpromising Candidates

NOTE: This was put up under the wrong byline but we’ll leave it as it is. JOE GANDELMAN

If you tuned in to tonight’s Democratic candidates debate and expected fireworks, you were likely disappointed. If you tuned in expecting a major gaffe, you were disappointed. If you tuned in expecting to see The Major Star emerge from the pack, you were disappointed.

But in a debate hampered by format as well as the natural caution of salesmen warily rolling out their products in front of potential buyers for the first time, the watchword was “content” and a unity of sorts around the concept that the next President must make a drastic departure from the policies, political style, unilateral international brinksmanship of the Bush administration. Time Magazine perhaps captured the mood best:

No hits, no runs, no errors. The much-anticipated first “debate” of the 2008 Democratic candidates Thursday night at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C., was a polite event — and not a particularly enlightening one. Part of the problem was the format, in which candidates were limited to 60-second answers and not allowed to engage each other. Part of it was the sheer number of people on stage: eight candidates in all. But after 90 minutes, it was hard to pick out a single memorable answer. The only thing made clearer is why the candidates, who are facing scores of requests to repeat the exercise, are trying to put a limit to the number of debates in which they will participate.

The top three contenders — Clinton, Obama, and Edwards — did little to hurt or help themselves. That made it a wash for them. None of the so-called “second tier” — Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson — managed what they were hoping for, which was a badly needed breakout moment. Biden, however, got the biggest laugh of the night when moderator Brian Williams brought up his well deserved reputation for talking too much and committing gaffes. “Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?” Williams asked. Biden’s answer: “No.” Which was followed by a long, pregnant silence.

The debates now matter in 21st century American because over the years political debates have become a baptism-under-fire for the person who emerges to head a given party’s ticket. Even when conducted under idea-hampering format constraints the debates allow voters to see the evolution of candidates over the course of a primary season.

Here are some impressions from this independent voter. These impressions are NOT necessarily based on a given candidate’s ideas, but a bunch of factors on their how viable they would be heading a ticket that needs to attract more than voters from the Democratic Party base:

SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON: She has been a work in progress since being elected to Senator. And last night she had the content in her comments and her delivery was vastly improved — often (but not always) succeeding in the conversational style that won her much praise in her widely-covered candidacy announcement over the Internet. Towards the end there was a brittleness to her comments and her voice rose. If she can continue to connect with the camera (and viewers) and offer substantive comments she could do what has been difficult for her so far — pick up a batch of new supporters. Republicans underestimate her at their considerable peril.

He came across as one of the most thoughtful candidates, heavy on ideas and not into playing (or tolerating) political games during the debate. His famous charisma appeared diminished in this debate. The seriousness with which he spoke and the answers he gave seemed a bit reminiscent of John F. Kennedy in some of his debates where JFK was trying to overcome perceptions about his youth. Hillary Clinton underestimates him at her considerable peril.

FORMER SENATOR JOHN EDWARDS: Edwards was a major disappointment to many when he ran as Vice President in 2004. The hype about his charisma and depth didn’t seem to translate well on the tube, particularly when he was almost deferential to Dick Cheney in the debates. But Edwards seems to have gotten his political act together. The John Edwards last night was much closer to the John Edwards that was hyped in 2004. He seems to have staked out his own ground. Keep watching him.

Biden has run into trouble due to pundits and Democrats who feel he has double foot-in-mouth disease: a penchant to say something dumb and that he often remind people of the famous Chinese philosopher — Aahn Too Long. But last night, Biden seemed to hit a perfect note — like Edwards, staking out his own ground. Interestingly, Biden was perhaps one who came across best on T.V. because his personality seemed bigger than life due to the emphatic and blunt way he expresses his ideas. However, Biden appears to be both damaged goods and too familiar a face in Presidential debates for a party looking for someone new. He may have a future as a Vice Presidential candidate or in a high post in a Democratic administration.

NEW MEXICO GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: Perhaps the most flawed performance of any of the “big name” presidential wannabes. Richardson seemingly displaced Biden as the windiest candidate, seldom finishing a response before a reminder from the moderator that he was out of time. His answers often seemed to contain a good answer and then a quick effort to regurgitate as many points crammed before the debate into whatever time he could. In each primary season there is someone who simply does not come over well on television, and this doesn’t have to do with looks. Richardson’s aides need to work on a) a punchier, more confident TV delivery and b) getting him to finish his question before he is reminded he is out of time. If Obama came across as JFK, Richardson last night sometimes came across as the Joe Biden that Joe Biden was trying to put behind him last night…

Not much to criticize or praise. Seems more like to be a Vice Presidential candidate. Dodd could be one of the ones to drop out early. In terms of “looking Presidential,” Dodd did well. But the overall package was like political tofu. Unlikely to appeal to primary voters.

Kucinich has his fans on the Left but he has little potential for a general election. The reason: President George W. Bush came to office saying he was “a uniter not a divider” and has presided over one of the most (if not THE most) polarizing administrations in American history. Kucinich suggested he is a healer but stated that if any of his competitors apologized for voting for the war in Iraq, that was NOT enough. Even a cursory look at polls over the past few years show that MANY AMERICANS supported the war and have now changed their minds. Kucinich also argues war can’t be policy and questioned whether there really is a war on terror. These concepts would have little chance of attracting even center-left independent voters that Democrats need to win in 2008. He has a future as a member of Congress. And, if he is nominated, a Republican will have a future in the Oval Office.

He provided colorful sound bites that will be played and replayed by progressive talk show hosts and quoted on progressive blogs. But he is not a serious candidate who could give Republicans a run for their money. He is to this race what the Rev. Al Sharpton was in the past — a great quote machine for journalists, broadcasters, talk show hosts and bloggers. Unfortunately, the point of primaries is to pick someone to run for President and win a general election. His only appeal will be to the party’s staunch anti-war left.

BOTTOM LINE: The Democrats have some strong candidates at the starting gate who have potential if they work on (a) the content of their messages and (b) the reality that messages must be communicated succinctly and in a way that connects with viewers.

These candidates will likely all be skewered and belittled by some Republican talk show and cable hosts. But the Demmies clearly have some candidates who could communicate, present alternative ideas, run a good campaign and win an election. The biggest loser: those who expected one of the candidates to self-destruct last night. None did.

–Joe Gandelman

THAT’S JUST OUR VIEW. HERE ARE SOME MORE OPINIONS ON THE DEBATES (these are excerpts so go to the original links):

Glenn Reynolds has a bunch of links and writes: “I’d say that Mike Gravel improved his situation the most: “Gravel… that’s news to me. I didn’t even know he was still alive!”‘

Good Will Hunting has a post similar to ours breaking down how each candidate did…but with some different reactions. Overall: “Overall, the Democrats stayed away from the circular firing squad tonight. If they do that, 2009 will have a Democrat in the White House. Any disagreement?

Sister Toldjah live-blogged the event. A small taste 4 U:

Update 36: My initial impressions are that political junkies learned nothing new tonight from the debate, outside of getting to know Gravel a lot better – LOL. There wasn’t a lot of interaction between the candidates and I think that’s the way [MSNBC’s moderator Brian] Williams and co. wanted it. A lot of the responses were canned, but made for good soundbites for Democrats who are still undecided. I really can’t get over the length of time it took John Edwards to answer the question about who he considered to be his moral leader. Just proves what a pompous self-important twit he is. I really do believe if he were to answer it honestly he’d say “you’re looking at him.�?

Inconvenient Truthiness:

Senator Hillary Clinton overcame the concerns of if a woman could become President during this hour and a half. She was forceful but soft-spoken, moderate and the definition of Presidential. Her approval rating in the MSNBC online poll changed drastically for the positive.

Gravel was, in my opinion, a madman. He was the loose cannon on the team. He said that other candidates on the panel actually scared him. When asked who, he cited the “top tier” candidates. Gravel was particularly angry the entire time, and seemed to think no one was qualified.

Ted’s Soapbox:

Everyone seemed to have the usual answers, Hillary seemed to have the most “rehearsed�? answers and she also seemed to sidestep more questions than anyone else. Kucinich and Gavel seemed to have the most original plans and platforms of anyone, it is unfortunate they don’t have the money or name power as the status quo contenders. I really liked both Kucinich’s and Gavel’s plans for Iraq.

–Cadillac Tight has a MUST READ HERE giving its view of each candidate. An excerpt of its conclusion: “Predictions? Edwards continues to be the netroots darling, while slipping in the polls nationwide. Hillary and Obama will remain neck and neck. Richardson will enter the first tier by August. Gravel drops out by August. Kucinich wastes time and money once again by staying in until the bitter end.”

Also MUST READ Taylor Marsh who felt it was a “very good night” for Ms. Clinton. We won’t quote from it since it needs to be read in full.

See our earlier post on the debate HERE.

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