Showing posts with label debate analysis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label debate analysis. Show all posts

1/22/2008

South Carolina Debate Analysis (D)

Last night the top three Democrats squared off in what was the most cantankerous, liveliest, and probably nastiest debate that has taken place so far this campaign season. The rhetoric often became heated and the accusations were flying fast and furiously. Praising the legacy of Martin Luther King was often followed by accusations of distoring one's records, working with "slumlords," hypocrisy, and not taking stands on previous tough votes. In other words, it was good television for political junkies and pundits who had been waiting for the gloves to come off for ages.

Here's how I think the candidates fared:

Hillary Clinton

Clinton was highly aggressive at the debate, as she hit Obama hard over Iraq, healthcare, his voting record in the Illinois legislature, and even his dealings with the shady Tony Rezko. Some of these attacks did not go over well, as she actually received a few boos from the audience. Her main point was that one's record and what one says do matter, and she wanted to use Obama's "present" votes (read this post I wrote back in November) and recent remarks (e.g., talking about Reagan's transformational politics) to illustrate these points. Of course, this would open her up to criticism about her war vote regarding Iraq and how so many of her records from Bill Clinton's presidency have yet to be released, so this is a risky strategy for her to pursue. Curiously, she also said "this election is about the future." But does Clinton really represent "the future?"

There has been a titanic shift among Black voters from Clinton to Obama after Obama's Iowa victory and the race-baiting from the last two weeks. Coupling this with Clinton's attacks on Obama last night suggests that she has made the tactical decision to cede South Carolina to Obama and speak moreso to Democrats in Florida and the Super Tuesday states. This is akin to Mitt Romney's foregoing South Carolina for the sake of Michigan and Nevada. Black voters in South Carolina (and perhaps beyond) seem to have made the decision that Obama is "their guy" and will not take kindly to Clinton hammering him like that. Obama will probably win South Carolina, but his margins among Black voters will likely be quite lopsided.

If this is Clinton's strategy, it does have some merit in that Blacks will not make up as large a portion of the electorate in many Super Tuesday states as they do in South Carolina, thus giving Blacks for Obama the same importance as evangelicals for Huckabee. So while Clinton could cede the Black vote to Obama on Super Tuesday, if she is able to hold down his margins among White voters enough, she could plausibly win the nomination. The problem with this, however, is that she will be under a lot of pressure to smooth over her relationships with Blacks, especially if she doesn't choose Obama or another Black as her running mate. The problem for Obama, of course, is that the more Blacks rush to his campaign and the more they express outrage over the attacks against him (from Whites), the more he risks becoming "the black candidate" instead of "the unity candidate who happens to be Black." As I mentioned in a previous post, Clinton can beat the former, but she can't beat the latter.

Barack Obama

Standing at the center lectern, Barack Obama was buffeted from all sides by Clinton and Edwards. He had several particularly sharp exchanges with Clinton, which likely indicates that the "truce" they had declared just a few days ago is either over or never really existed to begin with. To Obama's credit, he was able to parry most of the attacks that came his way and even cleverly pivoted from talking about a vulnerability to talking about a strength. For example, when Clinton hit him hard on his dealings with Tony Rezko, Obama glossed over the controversy and pivoted to discussing the importance of being able to trust what our leaders say. While he may not have completely acquited himself regarding Rezko, he did at least mollify voters by reminding them of his candor, which he commonly demonstrated in his book regarding his past drug use and other indiscretions. But while he was able to successfully turn this into an issue of honesty, it also provided his weakest moment of the debate because he was forced to concede that "none of our hands are completely clean." Should the media pick up on this remark, Obama had better be prepared to explain exactly what he meant because the Obama brand is built on "change," which is synonymous with good, open, clean government.

Obama had a few things he clearly wanted to say tonight, likely in an attempt to quell some of the persistent rumors about him and to get some of his frustrations out in the open. Note that he made it a point to remind everyone that he was "a proud Christian" and that he wasn't sure if he was running against just one Clinton or two. The former remark was to stem the rumors about him being a Muslim. The latter was to convey to voters that he was being unfairly double-teamed by the Clinton machine and that they represent the "old way" of doing politics. For voters who don't have access to the internet or who don't often watch the news, this debate provided Obama with a huge megaphone through which he could communicate with these voters who might be easily swayed by rumors or other propoganda.

The audience seemed to like Obama last night and commonly applauded or chucked at his remarks. Because of how aggressively Clinton and Edwards were attacking him, Obama could parlay that into a discussion about "coming together," which plays to his strengths. His remarks about who Martin Luther King would endorse were quite clever, as he reminded voters that King was about empowerment and grassroots activism. This response was out of the box and showed him to be "different" from traditional Black leaders who commonly talk about combatting racism, ending poverty, and the vestiges of slavery. Blacks and Whites alike probably found these remarks to be quite pleasing and uplifting.

John Edwards

John Edwards is the odd man out in this race. He complained to the moderators several times about there being three candidates on the stage instead of two and how the other candidates were getting more time to speak than he was. But this is Edwards' problem. After losing his must-win state of Iowa, placing a distant third in New Hampshire, garnering a dismal 4% in Nevada, and trailing badly in South Carolina polls, Edwards is on the cusp of irrelevancy.

People have talked about how Edwards could potentially be a kingmaker or even wrest the nomination away from Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama if they beat up on each other so badly that they render themselves unelectible. But the problem with this is that the voters already know who Edwards is and saw how little he added to John Kerry's 2004 ticket. His populist rhetoric has some resonance, but he seems to be losing traction everywhere.

Edwards tried to play the role of the grown-up on stage who wanted to keep the focus on the issues facing ordinary Americans:

"(paraphrased quote) Americans don't care about our bickering. All our squabbling is not going to give hardworking Americans healthcare."
For politicos who have been paying attention, this is exactly what Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden were saying at previous debates, but none of them was rewarded for it. Because Edwards is now the weakest candidate remaining, will his remarks be ignored just as Richardson's were? After all, Richardson talked about stopping the petty bickering at the debate before the New Hampshire primary. He won lots of applause for those remarks, but they didn't translate into lots of votes.

Several pundits identified Edwards as the winner of the debate, but I'm not so sure. He was reminded of previous votes he had taken that contradict his campaign rhetoric now (e.g., votes regarding trade with China) and several of his attacks on Obama were successfully parried. While Edwards may have won in terms of trying to focus more on the issues, too many voters may have already written him off for his arguments to resonate.

In addition to this, he sometimes allied himself with Obama to attack Clinton as not being a true agent of change. The problem with this is that Obama is viewed as the main "change" candidate in the race. Edwards needs to find a new niche because the "change" mantle has already been taken. Sometimes Edwards joined with Clinton to attack Obama as well, but he doesn't have much to gain by pursuing that strategy either because the Edwards and Clinton camps simply don't like each other and are not likely to have their supporters defect to the other's campaign.

The Republicans

John McCain seems to be the candidate the Democrats are expecting to face in November. The fact that his name was brought up more than once should delight McCain's campaign and be good for his fundraising because he could tell his donors that "the Democrats are more worried about me than they are about fixing the economy" or something like that. That has the added bonus of allowing McCain to make an "us vs. them" argument in which "us" means Republicans--the very group he needs to win over the most because of his weaker appeal among those voters compared to independents.

George Bush's name also often came up, usually for the sake of criticism. The Democrats seem intent on running against Bush this fall even though his name won't be on the ballot. Look for McCain to be turned into a proxy for Bush despite his popularity among independents and his perception as a maverick. That might not be easy to do because Republican dissatisfaction with and distrust of McCain is well-documented and could be used as evidence to show that he is not as close to Bush as the Democrats may claim.

The fact that Mitt Romney's name was not mentioned at all despite having won more states than his rivals and leading the delegate race is probably a psychological blow for him. However, Romney could be what Obama was last year in that Republicans were expecting to face off against the inevitable Clinton. Should the Democrats view McCain as the inevitable Republican, a surprise Romney nomination could force the Democrats to search for a new political playbook.

This is not to say that the Democrats plan on ceding all of the Republican votes to the Republican candidates. Obama was the only Democrat that talked about getting a few disenchanted Republicans to join him, thus further buttressing the idea that he is a unity candidate. Clinton talked more about having faced the Republicans before and being able to beat them, thus reminding Democrats that she's "tough" and "tested." Edwards' populist rhetoric could potentially appeal to both Democrats and Republicans because poverty knows no politics, but his nomination looks far less likely now than it did a few months ago.

The media

With this debate taking place on Martin Luther King Day and being sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus in South Carolina, a lot of questions were related to the issues of race and poverty. Some of the questions, however, were a bit unnecessary, as they did not really reveal anything important about the candidates. For example, why was Obama asked if Bill Clinton really was "the first Black president?" Fortunately he had a witty response ("let's see how well he dances"), but couldn't the time spent on this question have been better spent asking about the candidates' views on withdrawing troops from Iraq?

The moderator (CNN's Wolf Blitzer) did not really have control over this debate, but the ground rules he mentioned at the beginning of the debate made this lack of control seem less obvious. Having had so many of these rules be ignored in previous debates, CNN did a good job of just letting the candidates have at each other, even though they had a tendency to stray off topic and go negative. (Again, to his credit, John Edwards tried to keep everyone focused on the issues instead of on each other.) The moderators simply asked the questions and tried to give the candidates a fair chance to offer rebuttals to their rivals' charges. So while they might not have had total control over the debate, at least they did not embarrass themselves by pretending they did.

All in all, judging from this debate I'd say that Clinton is thinking more about Super Tuesday than South Carolina, Obama is thinking about exposing Clinton as a negative campaigner, and Edwards is still thinking about finding a way to become the third person in a two-person race.

1/16/2008

Las Vegas Debate Analysis (D)

The Democratic debate in Las Vegas tonight was a generally disappointing affair. Only the top three candidates (Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama) were allowed to participate in this debate, so one would assume that the candidates had many more opportunities to flesh out their policy details and be more specific about their platforms. Also, there were no Mike Gravels or Dennis Kuciniches on stage to distract the other candidates or interrupt the flow of the debate. In light of all this, this debate was a bit of a letdown because the three candidates did not really engage each other and the moderators' questions did not force them to speak in anything other than generalities.

One of the more interesting moments happened towards the beginning of the debate when a heckler said, "These are all race-based questions!" or something similar. Clearly, this man was frustrated with the focus of the questions at the start of the debate, which centered on the overheated rhetoric regarding race over the past few days. Both Obama and Clinton were clearly trying to bury the hatchet and move on, but the moderators belabored the issue by asking one too many questions about retracting statements, citing what went wrong, and whether racism sunk Obama in the privacy of voting booths in New Hampshire. While the heckler was out of line, he was definitely correct in identifying one of the agents that was complicit in advancing the race issue: the media.

John Edwards seemed out of his depth tonight when the questions centered on foreign policy. The moderator asked him what he would do about Kuwait and how foreign countries were investing so heavily in American companies, but he sidestepped the question and pivoted to a discussion about financial insecurity concerns among middle class voters.

Edwards also got caught flatfooted when the moderator reminded him of his previous support for the bankruptcy bill during President Bush's first term that made it more difficult for individuals to declare bankruptcy. When the moderator said that this bill threatened middle and lower class voters who were unable to pay their medical bills, Edwards was forced to admit he was wrong to support that bill. This was potentially damaging because it contradicted Edwards' rhetoric of fighting for the little guy.

Later, he was asked about nuclear energy and storing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. Edwards sidestepped this question too, but Hillary Clinton reminded him, "But John, you did vote for Yucca Mountain twice and you did not answer the moderator's question." Again, Edwards had to acknowledge that he was wrong or that circumstances had changed since those votes.

Another weak moment came when the debate switched to illegal immigration. The moderator asked what was wrong with making English the official language of the United States. Edwards went into a long discussion about the need for immigration reform but never really answered the question. Neither Obama nor Clinton were asked about this, but should one of them make it to the general election, they will need to articulate a much more credible response because this is one of the few issues on which Republicans are on the side of public opinion.

In general, Edwards tried to make sure voters knew he was the candidate who would come down hard on lobbyists, special interests, and corporations that exploit their workers. He also made these arguments forcefully and with a great sense of authenticity. However, he came across as a one-dimensional candidate who was incapable of or uncomfortable with talking about anything other than the impact of corporate greed and an ailing economy on the middle class.

Hillary Clinton fared better than Edwards, but she had a problem with responding to questions directly. She also seemed to pander, as she commonly reminded the moderators that "this is a Black and Brown debate" and that it was "unfortunate" that "Black and Brown issues" were not being addressed. In light of all the recent controversy about playing the race card, these lamentations from Clinton may have seemed a bit insincere. Will the media pick up on this and wonder if Clinton was "trying to play the race card" again?

Clinton also was a bit evasive when confronted with direct questions or when asked to explain herself. If these debates are supposed to be about explaining one's views, why did Clinton say "I'm not going to characterize it," when asked to explain her statement before the New Hampshire primaries about how "our adversaries abroad are watching our elections closely and we have to remember that we are hiring a president who will be there when the chips are down?" Obama called Clinton out on these remarks by saying that was an example of politicians using the specter of terrorism to influence elections.

Clinton also did not directly answer the question about whether Bob Johnson, who made the recent veiled remarks about Obama's past drug use, will campaign with her in the future. This was not lost on voters who view her as calculating and conniving, especially when she said that sometimes one's political supporters are "exuberant and uncontrollable." This "uncontrollability" seems to be a pattern with Clinton's supporters.

George Bush was Clinton's main target tonight. It seemed as if she was reverting to her earlier strategy of ignoring her rivals because she was the inevitable nominee. I am not sure about the wisdom of this strategy, however, as Democratic voters already know that Bush is not their friend. So she was essentially preaching to the choir in that regard. Also, Clinton is no longer the inevitable nominee, so she probably should have challenged Obama a bit more.

To Clinton's credit, she did challenge Obama to join her in supporting her legislation about President Bush's responsibility to come before Congress when considering establishing permanent bases in Iraq. This was a shrewd move by Clinton because it would make her look like a leader if Obama accepted her challenge (and thus diminish Obama by making him look more like a follower), further blur the differences between the two candidates on Iraq (regardless of Clinton's initial vote to authorize the Iraq War), and make Obama look like he wasn't prepared to bury the hatchet and be the unity candidate if he rejected her offer.

In my estimation, Barack Obama probably won this debate, although nobody really shined tonight. To Obama's credit, he seemed the most comfortable and the most confident when answering questions, although he seemed to meander at times. Obama also did a good job of drawing distinctions without drawing blood, so he appeared firm and civil at the same time. He had one of the better responses of the night when he was asked to talk about Black males and why the education system was failing them. That response likely resonated with Black voters in South Carolina and maybe even piqued the ears of conservatives because Obama did not come across like a typical liberal Black politician who solely blamed the government for the plight of young Black Americans.

The big loser in this debate was the media. A lot of time was wasted asking questions that were more about making news and advancing media storylines than explaining policy:

"What is your greatest strength and weakness?"

"How did we get [to this sorry dialogue about race]?"


Strike two for the media: Obama was also shortchanged by the moderators when he was not allowed to ask his preferred question to one of the candidates because he wanted to respond to a point made by Edwards in the form of a question. A bit of moderator discretion would have made for a better debate, in my opinion.

The other losers tonight were Iowa and New Hampshire. How many voters were ripping out their hair when they listened to these candidates address issues of foreign policy by nibbling at the edges and speaking in generalities? I've mentioned this before, but I think the Democrats will regret that the three veteran candidates (Richardson, Dodd, and Biden) were winnowed from the field prematurely while three fairly similar and weaker candidates survived.

Overall, this debate lacked fireworks, memorable one-liners, a discussion of specifics, and a sense of reassuring competence regarding foreign policy. The three candidates seemed to change their positions on Iraq again (this time they talked about getting most of the troops out during their first year in office). Pakistan barely came up, and Edwards fumbled the question about Kuwait. People may talk about how this election is the Democrats' to lose, but based on the relatively uninspiring performances I witnessed tonight, I think the Republicans have a better chance of retaining the White House than the pundits think.

The new candidate Democrats should be worried about is Mitt Romney, who won the Michigan primary tonight. This victory places the onus on Mike Huckabee to win South Carolina this weekend. For all of Romney's flip-flops, he at least comes across as competent. Unfortunately for Democrats, Bush won't be on the ballot this fall, and Romney is wisely adopting the "change" mantle and coupling it with a focus on economic issues. I don't know if "a new kind of politics" or "fighting for change" or "fighting for the mill workers" can trump that because Romney is an outsider who won and successfully governed in a very blue state. So he could potentially match up quite well against any of the Democrats.

1/06/2008

Fox News New Hampshire Debate Analysis (R)

Yet another debate took place in New Hampshire tonight. This debate was the subject of much controversy, as Ron Paul was not invited to participate even though he is polling better than Fred Thompson in New Hampshire and performed better than Rudy Giuliani in the Iowa caucuses. However, the small number of candidates again allowed everyone to provide extended answers and challenge each other without having to worry too much about the clock. Fox News, which sponsored this debate, however, would be wise to clearly state the criteria that must be met when extending debate invitations. They cited double-digit national polling numbers as the criteria necessary to participate, but that might not be the most meaningful or fairest way to include or exclude candidates, especially in light of the Iowa caucuses that had just taken place. It seems at first glance that Fox News was trying to silence the candidate they don't like or have fundamental disagreements with.

As for the candidates' performances...

Mitt Romney had his best debate in a long time tonight. He looked competent, collected, and presidential. He was a bit more aggressive towards his rivals tonight and spent less time on defense, which was a huge contrast from the previous debate yesterday where he was the designated punching bag. If Romney could deliver such steady performances in the debates and on the campaign trail more consistently, he would be a much more formidable candidate. However, he still seems a bit emotionally distant and has a tendency to sound more like an impersonal manager than a galvanizing leader. Also, at a time when voters are angry about their finances and how they're working harder for less money and less job security, it is not wise for Romney to run as the champion of corporations. He did that again tonight. The business wing of the Republican Party is probably quite happy about this, but average voters likely don't want to hear their president pay more attention to businesses than the people who work for them, even if the businesses are what provide the jobs. Should Romney make it as far as the general election, he would be wise to heed this advice. Having said that, Romney turned in a much stronger debate and erased his awful performance yesterday from the front pages.

John McCain did reasonably well at the debate, but Romney occasionally got the best of him when he was confronted on his positions on the Bush tax cuts and visas for illegal immigrants. However, he did remind voters of why they liked him so much when he talked about how he brought "change" to the United States regarding his conviction on Iraq and the surge. Romney tried to suggest that McCain was less qualified to prosecute military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that was a stretch that only elevated McCain at Romney's expense. Romney's debate performance was stronger than McCain's, but McCain did not do anything to hemorrhage any support in the polls. However, McCain does need to work on his body language and mannerisms a bit because he has displayed a tendency to smirk or chuckle inappropriately, often after hitting one of his rivals with a tough attack. It reminds me of a strange grin McCain gave at a debate last spring after passionately expressing his determination to capture Osama bin Laden. It just seems weird, and even a bit off-putting and childish.

I am not sure what Fred Thompson brings to these debates. He has had a tendency to make inappropriate remarks and snide comments that may seem colorful at first, but ultimately make him appear immature and unpresidential. His wisecracks may remind voters of President Bush, and not in a good way. For someone who is polling at about 2% in New Hampshire and isn't even campaigning there, I am unsure of why he was even included in this debate. Supporters of Ron Paul have every right to be outraged about this.

Rudy Giuliani got lost in the shuffle tonight. It is amazing how far Giuliani has fallen. He was seated at the far end of the table and was not the center of the dialogue. And he failed to say anything in this debate that he has not said already. How thin has his 9-11 mantra worn among voters? Giuliani had better hope that McCain wins New Hampshire, Romney wins Michigan, and Huckabee or Thompson wins South Carolina because the only way Giuliani can win the nomination is if his conservative opposition remains divided. Should a single consensus conservative alternative arise, Giuliani would be in serious trouble because he seems not to have much to offer Republicans anymore other than his leadership in New York City after the terrorist attacks there.

And finally, Mike Huckabee had one of his poorer debates in that he spent a bit more time on the defensive and appeared evasive when confronted by tough questions from Mitt Romney. However, again, Huckabee seems to be the only Republican candidate who understands the concerns of average people. The other candidates could not stop talking about curbing spending, tax cuts, why the Democrats are bad for America, and supporting the mission in Iraq, which are generally good things for Republicans to talk about. However, families concerned about the price of gas, increases in their children's college tuition, and rising health care premiums aren't thinking about tax cuts and "socialized medicine." They're thinking about how to make ends meet and they need help. New Hampshire voters are much more moderate and more libertarian than Huckabee's evangelical base that turned out for him in Iowa. However, he may be rewarded with a surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary because he has his finger on the pulse of the concerns of a lot of voters. The other candidates would be wise to spend less time reciting familiar Republican talking points and a bit more time addressing the concerns of actual people.

Fox News presented this debate and the format allowed for some tough exchanges between the candidates. However, I found the question selection to be poor, as they spent so much time talking about tax cuts and rehashing the same questions about illegal immigration. Obviously, these are major issues for Republican voters and New Hampshire voters. The problem, however, is that the questions and the exchanges that followed did not really allow for any new ground to be broken. Also, these questions seemed to be more focused on ideological purity than on practical solutions. I refer to the appeal of Mike Huckabee's rhetoric again here. Being the toughest on illegal immigration, cutting taxes the most, and being the staunchest defender of the mission in Iraq may please the Republican base, but they don't do anything to bring moderates and independents into the Republican tent. McCain in particular is going to need these independents now in the primary, but whoever wins the nomination is going to need these independents in the general election.

Thoughts on the New Hampshire Debate (D)

This post will assess last night's Democratic debate. For my take on the Republicans, click here.

As I watched the debate, several facts became immediately apparent:

1. Bill Richardson has become the new Duncan Hunter. He was allowed to participate in the debate by virtue of his fourth place finish in the Iowa caucuses. However, he is a weak candidate and is not viable. Aside from citing his extensive resume, he did not really distinguish himself from the other candidates at the debate. He reminded voters of his wealth of experience, but that may not have been a good strategy to pursue, as Chris Dodd and Joe Biden also ran on experience and lost. And Hillary Clinton tried using "experience" to counter Barack Obama's message of "change" only to have her finish third in the Iowa caucuses. Richardson's problem is that he does not offer anything that the other candidates don't, save for having the most comprehensive resume and executive experience. But again, as Biden, Dodd, and Clinton will attest, that might not matter much. In addition to this, his signature issue, Iraq, is not playing as well as it used to because of recent military successes there, so his calling card of getting all the troops out of Iraq with "no residual forces" has lost some of its potency. Do Iowan voters have any buyers' remorse?

2. John Edwards clearly views Hillary Clinton as his main rival, rather than Barack Obama. He generally refrained from attacking Obama and commonly directed his fire at Clinton. Perhaps he believes that she is the easier candidate for him to beat? Edwards could plausibly argue that he is more electable than she is in addition to being more likable than her as well. It seems that Obama and Edwards are treating Clinton the same way McCain and Huckabee are treating Romney. By double-teaming their main rival, they stand a better chance of taking that rival out. Also, by not going after Obama, could Edwards be angling for the second spot on an Obama ticket?

3. It would be foolish to write off Hillary Clinton despite her poor Iowa finish. While I watched the debate, it was hard to tell who the real frontrunner was at times. She sounded competent and tough, especially when talking about foreign policy and national security. Obama and Edwards spoke more in generalities when it came to stopping terrorism and dealing with nuclear proliferation, a fact that was likely not lost on conservative-leaning voters who are disaffected with the Republican Party. The problem for Clinton, however, is that Obama now controls his own destiny. So no matter how well Clinton does at these debates, as long as Obama does well enough, she will never catch him. Obama made no obvious mistakes during the debate, so he leaves the debate in the same position he was in before it started: ahead. David Broder wrote more about how the race is now Obama's to lose.

4. Obama received a huge boost during the Republican debate when the moderator asked the Republican candidates why they were better suited for the presidency than Obama. The question was phrased to show that the GOP candidates may have been considering Clinton their default opponent a little too soon. I listened carefully to the Republican candidates make their cases against Obama and I noticed that they seemed to have considerable difficulty doing so. Romney, for example, talked a lot about the importance of "change." But the problem for Romney is that he is not the "change" candidate. He is the "manager" candidate. And the negative "flip flop" caricature has more resonance when describing Romney than "change." Huckabee was much more gracious as he talked about Obama and said they both represent a level of civility and pragmatism that the other candidates don't. So he helped build Obama up. Ron Paul did the same when he talked about how they both appealed to younger voters. Compare these remarks with their common remarks about "Hillarycare," for example, and it's easy to see that running against Obama is something they are much less prepared for.

5. John Edwards has tapped into the palpable anger among many voters regarding health insurance, corporate profits, and the struggles of the middle class. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that he would be a polarizing general election candidate who would make the corporate community recoil in horror. He is framing the difference between himself and Obama as how to bring about change. Obama seems to be in favor of a more conciliatory approach, such as negotiating with "the big drug companies," for example. But, as Edwards says, "you can't 'nice' these companies into giving up their greed." Edwards believes "change" should be achieved via a more confrontational approach. He essentially wants to punch "big oil" and "big pharmaceutical companies" in the jaw. I recommend reading this post I recently wrote about the implications of an Edwards nomination.

6. Edwards might not be going after Obama's throat right now, but he will have to engage him eventually. But how can he? How can anyone go after Obama, especially since his favorability ratings are so high? Clinton, whose favorability ratings are considerably lower, can ill afford to drive up her own negatives any further by going after Obama too vigorously. And Edwards runs the risk of coming across as too angry. Attacking Obama's thin resume did not work in Iowa, and criticizing his lofty, inspirational rhetoric only serves to further buttress his own arguments about cynicism and hope. Could it be that this race is closer to being over than we think?

Semi-predictions

If Obama wins New Hampshire, Clinton will be in serious, serious trouble. After winning in two overwhelmingly White states, I highly doubt that Black voters in South Carolina are going to hold him back in the primary there. However, even if Clinton loses New Hampshire and South Carolina, she would still have her high name recognition and deep pockets to help keep her competitive when Super Tuesday finally comes around. Her national polling numbers are about 50% higher than Obama's, so she still has a fairly large margin for error that the other candidates never had.

If Edwards is able to beat Clinton in New Hampshire, he would be able to make a strong case that he is the #2 candidate in the race. But then what? He is trailing Obama badly in South Carolina and doesn't have the money to go the distance with him.

Of course, if Edwards places third, his campaign will effectively be over. He may stay until South Carolina just to see if his heavy advertising here had any effect on the race, but it's hard to see how he could go on with so little money and no momentum.

Hillary Clinton could win New Hampshire. Even if Edwards places second, if he places second to her, he would definitely be finished. The race will then become the two-person race between "Hillary and Obama" that the media have been talking up for months. I can't help but wonder, however, where a lot of disaffected Democrats will go because Clinton is not as popular among Democrats as Republicans think, and a lot of Democrats simply don't have "Obama fever." Will these voters stay home?

Joe Biden and Chris Dodd supporters who value experience and a proven track record of results may throw their support behind Bill Richardson because he's the last "resume" candidate remaining on the Democratic side. However, if they are unimpressed with his campaigning skills, they may consider John McCain, the other "experience" candidate in the race. McCain is not as partisan as some of the other Republicans and he has high favorability ratings among Democrats and independents. Basically, he is an "acceptable" Republican to many Democrats and may win a lot of crossover support.

This is still a three-person race, but John Edwards only has one more chance to remain relevant.

Thoughts on the New Hampshire Debate (R)

So much political news has taken place over the past few days. I'm still poring over the entrance polls from the Iowa caucuses, but I had to tune into the Republican and Democratic debates tonight because they were the first debates post-Iowa and were the first debates that didn't have 724 candidates on stage. To ABC's credit, they did a respectable job of keeping only the most relevant candidates on stage. As a result, the debate was quite informative and well-paced. The candidates all had a lot of time to articulate their positions and even challenge each other. In other words, this debate was an actual debate.

Both debates were well conducted. The moderators were professional, but tough. And they were keen on reminding the candidates when they did not answer the questions posed to them. The questions were substantive and relevant. And having all the candidates from both parties appear on stage together between the debates was a nice touch, as it likely reminded the candidates of the importance of being civil even when attacking their rivals.

This post will address the Republican debate, which took place first. (My take on the Democratic debate is here.) Here are my thoughts:

1. It is obvious that nobody likes Mitt Romney. He was attacked by McCain, Giuliani, Huckabee, and Thompson. They challenged him on immigration, supporting the surge in Iraq, the veracity of Romney's campaign ads, and health care. Everybody knew Romney was significantly weakened after his second place showing in the Iowa caucuses. It was as if the other candidates smelled blood and went in for the kill. As a result, Romney spent a lot of time on defense and came across as weak. For Republicans, projecting strength matters, especially because Republicans pride themselves on being tough on our nation's enemies, or at least tougher than the Democrats.

2. Romney also has a very serious brand problem. The "flip flop" label has stuck and his rivals are making sure voters know that. For example, Romney told Huckabee not to misrepresent his position on an issue during the debate, but Huckabee then shot back, "Which one?" Ouch. Romney was also talking about the importance of "change" in this election before McCain chimed in, "Yes, you certainly are the candidate of 'change,'" a reference to the "changes" in Romney's positions. These attacks were so strong that even a casual observer with little political knowledge whatsoever could understand what was going on. There is a very real risk now that whenever a voter hears the name "Romney," they may immediately associate "flip flopping" with it.

3. Mike Huckabee seems more in tune with regular people than the other candidates. The other candidates talked a lot about how the Democrats and Hillary Clinton would take this nation over a cliff. But rather than join in the Hillary-bashing and berating the "Democrat Party (sic)," Huckabee talked about the importance of leadership and getting things done. He seemed more concerned with actual governance and solving our nation's problems than the other candidates, who did a better job of trying to bruise each other and give the opposition party a black eye. Pay special attention to the discussion about health care and the number of uninsured Americans. Most of the other candidates dismissed this and talked about how "the US had the best medical system in the world" and how "socialized medicine" is a disaster. This all may or may not be true, but none of those candidates addressed the issue of those who are uninsured now. To Huckabee's credit, he actually addressed the issue.

Even though Huckabee's positions on social issues are not a good fit for a moderate state like New Hampshire, I do believe the voters there may reward him for his pragmatism, his authenticity, and his desire to actually get something done other than bickering.

4. Fred Thompson seems to be a better candidate now than he was when he first entered the race. But is it too little too late? Thompson seemed more confident and more comfortable with his delivery than in previous debates. He also spoke more directly and did a good job of reducing the other candidates' extended answers and obfuscations to simple, easy to digest barbs. It is too late for Thompson to place higher than fourth or fifth in New Hampshire, but South Carolinians who were watching the debate might be more inclined to give him a second look, likely at Romney's expense.

5. The other candidates are ignoring Ron Paul at their own peril. Aside from Huckabee, Paul was the only candidate to give straight answers to the moderator's questions. Voters who may have had knee-jerk reactions to Ron Paul because of his positions on Iraq earlier may have listened to some of his other arguments about inflation and energy and been quite impressed. And the clarity of his answers contrasted nicely with the often indirect and tangential answers some of his opponents gave, especially Rudy Giuliani. He also talked about the importance of getting younger voters involved in the process. Judging from Iowa's entrance polls, Paul is relying heavily on the under 30 crowd. Citing them in this debate reminded these young voters of the power they wield.

6. John McCain had a good debate and played the role of the elder statesman as the other candidates beat up on each other. However, he seemed to speak more to Republican voters than independent ones, as he talked a lot about strength, supporting the surge, and illegal immigration. He didn't talk much about "change," which is an obviously popular theme in this election. Thus, Barack Obama will probably benefit because these independent voters may be more inclined to participate in the Democratic primary instead of the Republican one.

7. Rudy Giuliani's star is fading. Criticizing Ron Paul's Iraq positions and talking about terrorism may be easy for him, but he runs the risk of being seen as having nothing else to run on. His biggest problem is that he is not giving voters a reason to vote for him. He's better at giving voters reasons not to vote for his rivals. He seemed much more negative and confrontational as well, which contrasted with Huckabee.

Semi-predictions

Because the New Hampshire primaries are so soon, I think McCain's performance was strong enough tonight to put him in the driver's seat. He is well positioned to win the primary and complete his marvelous comeback after his near political death experience last summer. Mike Huckabee likely beat voters' expectations of him, as he did not spend a lot of time talking about his positions on social issues that are generally out of step with New Hampshire voters. He likely earned points in these voters' minds by sounding humble, pragmatic, and serious without sounding overly partisan. That seems to be what a lot of voters want. In contrast, Mitt Romney is coming across as weak, unlikable, emotionally detached, boring, and insecure with his positions on the issues. (Why on earth was he defending pharmaceutical companies?!) He did not help himself in the polls with his performance tonight and he had better be concerned with not placing third or even fourth. Giuliani and Thompson are not really playing in New Hampshire, although Thompson probably did more to help his numbers than Giuliani did. And given the independent and libertarian nature of New Hampshire, I would not be surprised if Ron Paul placed third in the primary.

11/29/2007

YouTube Debate Analysis (R)

The Republican presidential candidates participated in their first YouTube debate last night and was produced by CNN. (You can read my initial take on the debate here.) This was CNN's second YouTube debate, as the Democrats participated in the first one back in July. This debate revealed a lot about the candidates and the media. More on that later.

Regarding the technical production of the debate, it seems that CNN took a few of my criticisms from the first YouTube debate to heart, as the videos were easier to hear and there were fewer technical problems, save for one man in the audience who accidentally turned off his microphone while addressing the candidates. Having said that, for the members of the audience, it might have been a bit too difficult to see the video questions because all the dead space involved should have been utilized to magnify the size of the videos. The best way I can describe this is to imagine placing a postcard on a regular sheet of paper and then enlarging it. The postcard will certainly fit, but you're also not taking advantage of all the extra functional space on the paper. More video and less graphics and whitespace is something future YouTube debate organizers should consider.

This debate started in a way that was similar to the recent Democratic debate in Las Vegas in which the candidates were introduced one by one and stood at center stage for a few minutes for a photo op. While the members of the press corps were happily snapping away, CNN's political analysts were handicapping the debate. I personally think this photo op is something that should have happened after the debate (as I had written about here), but perhaps CNN followed this protocol in an attempt to be fair to the Republican candidates since this is what they did for the Democrats a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. The "honor system" rule regarding response time was also the same, although it rendered moderator Anderson Cooper impotent, especially during the first half of the debate as the candidates frequently interrupted him or ignored his prompts to yield the floor to another candidate.

Before I go any further, I must address the candidacies of Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter. I've said that they needed to withdraw their candidacies because they are clearly mired at the back of the pack and do not occupy any political niche that isn't already filled by another candidate. However, like Mike Gravel, they have every right to run. And this is where the media become a problem. Neither Tancredo nor Hunter received much talk time at the debate, which brings up the same old criticism. If you're going to invite a candidate to participate in the debate, then you should not be so obvious in the way you marginalize them. I made that exact same criticism about the Democratic debate here. Of course, neither candidate really brought very much to the debate other than their positions on illegal immigration, so perhaps their limited talk time was justified. Having said that, future debate organizers are going to have to be honest with themselves and figure out what to do with these two candidates because the time given to them could have been more effectively used by the other candidates.

As for the selection of questions, I was surprised that there were no questions about Iran and healthcare, both of which have been major stories in the news recently in light of the escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran and the recent veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Rudy Giuliani in particular has criticized the Democrats for not mentioning the words "Islamic terrorism" in their debates, but I curiously noted how none of the Republican candidates mentioned the name "George Bush." It would seem to me that both political parties have a bit of a disconnect in that many voters may feel the Democrats don't take terrorism seriously enough and that a lot of voters may feel the Republicans don't understand just how unpopular Bush really is. Ronald Reagan's name came up more often than Bush's did, as has been the case in every GOP debate thus far, but one of the unintended consequences of praising Ronald Reagan so much is that it reminds Republican voters that George Bush is most certainly not Ronald Reagan. And in a political environment in which voters want "change," is going back to the '80s the right way to address these "change" voters? Hillary Clinton shares this exact same problem with her nostalgia about the '90s.

After the introductions, photo-op, and explanation of the debate format, Anderson Cooper played a few video submissions that did not make the cut. The final video was one that featured a song lampooning the candidates and their weaknesses. It was a bit awkward watching the candidates feign laughter when their name came up to be ridiculed in the song. After all, who wants to laugh when someone is bringing their flaws out into the open before the first question is even asked? But the candidates seemed to do the best with what they had. This video was probably included to get the debate off on a light note, but it was probably unnecessary.

About the issues and exchanges

Illegal immigration is huge. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani spent the first 15 minutes or so of the debate hitting each other hard on this issue. Romney accused Giuliani of being the mayor of a "sanctuary city." Giuliani hit back by accusing Romney of living in a "sanctuary mansion," an obviously prepared line in reference to the illegal aliens that had worked at his house. Romney defended himself by saying the company that hired the illegal aliens to work at his house was responsible for verifying their employees' legal status, and Giuliani defended himself by saying there were only "three exceptions" that allowed illegal aliens to stay in New York. Both of their defenses seem pragmatic enough, but the problem with this back and forth between them is that it reminds Republican voters that both candidates are trying to portray themselves as further to the right on this issue than they were when they were governor of Massachusetts and mayor of New York. Like Tom Tancredo said, "they are trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo" on this issue and it makes both candidates look less credible on the issue.

Mike Huckabee also drew fire from Mitt Romney on illegal immigration and how special benefits had been offered to the children of illegal immigrants while he was governor of Arkansas. To Huckabee's credit, he addressed this issue without using the shrill tones and demonizing language that turns off more moderate voters. He also explained the scholarship program by showing how it reflected conservative Republican values (he emphasized that the recipients had to be drug free, honor students, in the process of applying for citizenship, etc.). Huckabee also reminded voters of his humble roots when he attacked Romney for his emotionally sterile attitude and perceived disdain for helping out those who are less fortunate. His pragmatism and his delivery provide a perfect example of why I believe Huckabee has such a wide appeal. Romney came out on the losing end of this exchange because it showed him to be a bit too perfect or a bit too removed from average people's lives.

Democrats would be wise to develop a coherent policy proposal regarding illegal immigration because it is clearly a much larger issue that could potentially blow up in their faces in the general election. It is that galvanizing. Even though the "driver's license" question was tough for Hillary Clinton, it should be considered a godsend for Democratic politicians everywhere who had up until then been content with sitting on the sidelines while the Republicans blasted each other over border security, amnesty, deportation, and guest worker programs. This issue is a very big deal.

John McCain seemed a bit more presidential than Romney and Giuliani. However, it often took him a long time to warm up in his responses, which led to lots of inspirational language, but not a lot of solutions. It's nice to know that "he came to the Senate not to do the easy things, but to do the hard things," but was it really necessary for him to drone on and on about what currently ails this nation? He also soberly reminded everyone that the Republicans failed when it came to spending and Hurricane Katrina, for example. The problem is that while everybody knows what the problems are, nobody wants to provide any meaningful solutions. McCain did cite eliminating pork barrel spending as a way to achieve fiscal responsibility, but that alone will not solve the issue. McCain clearly had his openings tonight, but did not take full advantage of them because of how much time he spent saying things that everybody already knew. But despite that, I do believe he turned in a stronger performance than Giuliani and Romney simply because he didn't seem snippy, petty, or shrill.

Romney and McCain got into a spat over waterboarding. Obviously, as a former prisoner of war, McCain is uniquely qualified to talk about this issue. And he totally dismantled Romney when Romney said "it would not be prudent to disclose which interrogation methods we use because our enemies would know what to expect." The problem with Romney's remarks is that, while they may be popular with the GOP base, they could easily be countered in a way that catches these politicians in a contradiction. For example, if someone were to ask if it were okay for American interrogators to cut off the fingers or arms of captured terrorism suspects, surely all of these candidates would say that should never be condoned. So if it's okay to come down hard against one form of torture, why is it okay to be evasive or tight-lipped about another form of torture? Romney should develop a follow-up response to this line of questioning because trying to avoid the issue by saying it would aid the terrorists might not be enough to placate his critics.

This spat shows a major rift among Republicans. One wing of the party believes everything should be on the table when it comes to national security. Another wing is a bit more pragmatic and warns about the slippery slope of allowing torture. Avoiding discussing the issue like Romney did (and the way Bush does today) seems to be a way to straddle the fence, but it really opens you up for attack from all sides.

Fiscal conservatives are probably not too happy with any of the candidates. When a question came up about national debt reduction, the strategies proposed were "spending cuts the way Ronald Reagan did, eliminating pork, fundamental change in the way Washington works, entitlement reform, and using technology to improve efficiency." The problem here is that these are all generalities that any average person can come up with. Had a candidate gotten a bit more specific and conveyed a reasonable grasp of the potential consequences of these proposals, that candidate would have won major plaudits. The moderator gave Fred Thompson a chance to do this and tried to pin him down on his strategies towards fiscal responsibility (especially after he said "he had specific plans"), but he wouldn't elaborate. That was likely another disappointment for Republican voters who wonder if there is any "there" there with Thompson. (Read more of my criticisms about our superficial level of political discourse here.)

This is one reason why I believe Ron Paul turned in a stronger debate performance than most of the other candidates. Rather than making vague statements (we have to fix Social Security, we're winning in Iraq, we must secure our borders, etc.) and attacking low hanging fruit (pork spending, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Hillary Clinton, etc.), Ron Paul actually listed specifics. He proposed cutting the Departments of Education, Energy, and Homeland Security, for example, to cut down on spending because they were failing and bloated bureaucracies. The political establishment may view his remarks as burning your bridges with the electorate, but I get the sense that a lot more voters are viewing his frankness as a refreshing blast of political courage. John McCain also tried to display similar courage in terms of reforming the tax code. However, his delivery reeked of the same superficial rhetoric that I believe voters are fed up with:

"If Congress can't fix the tax code, then give me the job. I will fix it."
When he said this, the camera panned to a woman in the audience who rolled her eyes. Perhaps she is one of those fed up voters who wants real substance, rather than rhetoric.

McCain also made one other more damaging mistake. He went after Ron Paul on foreign policy and military intervention, but his attack blew up in his face. McCain said that "Ron Paul's isolationism caused World War II" and that "we allowed Hitler to come to power." Why McCain invoked Hitler is unknown, but that seemed a bit over the top. Ron Paul then hit back in a way that undermined McCain's grasp of foreign affairs. McCain accused Ron Paul of being an "isolationist," but Paul is really a "noninterventionist." There is a big difference between the two terms that a lot of average voters might not have known about until Ron Paul spelled it out for them last night. (For the record, a noninterventionist is open to communicating and trading with the rest of the world. An isolationist, however, has limited or no such contact with the rest of the world at all. Think about the differences between Sweden and North Korea, for example.) This exchange made Ron Paul appear more knowledgeable about foreign policy than military veteran McCain did--and at McCain's expense.

One of the biggest missed opportunities of the debate concerned the issue of Chinese product safety. When this question came up, it was inexplicably only given to Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter! I am sure there were a lot of women with children in particular who would have loved to hear what Giuliani, Romney, McCain, and Thompson had to say about this issue. What a lousy decision on the part of Anderson Cooper!

Voters did, however, hear Giuliani's position on gun rights, and I don't think conservatives liked what they heard. In addition to talking around the question he was asked (about having to pass a written test to be able to purchase a firearm), Giuliani said that "the government can impose reasonable regulations" and cited things like background checks and mental health checks. This would appeal to moderates, but conservatives most certainly don't want to hear anything about adding new government regulations. I believe this could potentially divide Giuliani's base. Are national security voters and Second Amendment voters one and the same? If they are, Giuliani is in trouble.

On the question of who owns a gun, Mitt Romney should have kept his mouth shut:
"I have two guns in my home. They're owned by my son Josh."
For a Republican candidate whose love for guns has long been suspect, Romney would have been better off staying quiet. Instead, he reminded voters that the caricature of Romney being a panderer had some validity. This remark reeked of "me too-ishness."

Gun voters aren't the only ones who likely left the debate dissatisfied. Black voters were also probably shaking their heads. There were two questions about Black issues--one on Black-on-Black crime and one on why Blacks don't vote Republican. Romney showed that he had very little understanding of the issue of Black-on-Black crime by taking the Sam Brownback approach and saying "having a mom and dad" is the best way to save inner city communities. Is he serious? Of course, for the millions of Blacks living in single-parent homes in the inner city, "having a mom and dad" isn't going to do a single thing about the fact that these people need help now.

Rudy Giuliani also totally flubbed a question about why Blacks don't vote Republican. He lamely said that "we don't do a good enough job of conveying that our party is a good fit for Blacks and Hispanics" before pivoting to welfare reform. For any readers out there who are wondering how politicians can make inroads with Black voters, you can start by acknowledging the utter failure of the government at all levels to take care of the people affected by Hurricane Katrina. Rudy Giuliani could have mentioned how the New York City Police Department mishandled situations like the shooting of an unarmed African immigrant in his own doorway. Issues of police brutality, racial profiling, taking money out of failing inner city public schools and putting it into (White) suburban private schools, not commenting on hot-button issues like the Jena Six case, and not bothering with reaching out to Blacks because "they'll never vote for a Republican anyway" would be good places for a Republican to start!

How can Republicans be so passionate in their rhetoric about fighting terrorists in Iraq and getting rid of illegal aliens coming from Mexico, but have so little to say when it comes to issues affecting millions of Blacks living within America's own borders? Do you remember the ignorance Fred Thompson displayed when asked about the Jena 6 case? It's a shame that Anderson Cooper did not ask everyone this question. The only person who displayed any sense of competency on this issue was Mike Huckabee, who mentioned some of the medical issues that commonly affect Blacks, such as AIDS, hypertension, and diabetes. Should he be the nominee, I expect him to attract a lot of Black votes. He seemed to be the only candidate on the stage last night who actually "gets it," just like Ron Paul "gets it" when it comes to how Iraq is draining our treasury:
"We're using our taxes to blow up buildings and bridges overseas, but we don't use that money to actually build buildings and bridges in the US! We need to get government off our back and out of our wallets!"
Romney's answer on the question of the Bible will come back to haunt him. His Mormonism is obviously a big deal in this primary and when he was asked if he believed "every word of the Bible," his answer was painful to listen to. For evangelical Christians, there is no tolerance for equivocating on such an issue. And Romney, unfortunately, took three big steps back when he answered the question "I may interpret the Bible differently than you do, but I believe the Bible is the word of God." (No answer on whether he believes "every word" of it though.) His answer wasn't really bad, but it was not good enough for evangelical Christians. Huckabee did a much better job of answering this question, but it was probably a bit unfair that he got to answer such an easy question, given the fact that he's a Baptist minister. Romney has been trying hard to lay the questions about his religion to rest, but I think he may have created more questions than he answered.

One of the questions that perhaps no Republican wanted to field was the question about how long the US military should stay in Iraq. The question came from a staunch Iraq War supporter who wants the US to maintain a long-term presence there. None of the candidates who answered that question hinted that they would advocate staying in Iraq for 5 or 10 more years. Instead, they answered the question with the common generality "We'll stay in Iraq until the mission is finished." Anderson Cooper could have made things a bit more interesting by asking what "the mission" is, but he missed the opening.

Perhaps the biggest surprise involved a question towards the end of the debate about what the Confederate flag meant. Mitt Romney took a pretty firm stand against the flag by saying "I don't recognize that flag. There are not two Americas. There is only one. We need to get beyond that stuff." This likely pleased moderates and any Blacks who were paying attention until turned them off again by saying "the Democrats are dividing America." And on top of that, his remarks probably doomed him in the early primary state of South Carolina. Politicos remember how John McCain was fatally wounded by his stance on the Confederate flag in the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary against George Bush. The reason why this is a big deal for Mitt Romney is because he had been trying to make the sale to Southern conservatives that he is "one of them" despite being from Massachusetts, being a Mormon, and once being on the wrong side of abortion and gay marriage. Coming down hard against the Confederate flag is one step below coming down hard against the Bible in South Carolina, where the flag still flies in front of the statehouse and in front of private residences throughout the rural areas of the state. It's common to see vehicles here with Confederate flag decals and vanity plates, so these (likely Republican) voters were probably offended by Romney's remarks. These remarks alone moved Romney out of the "conservative" category and into the "liberal" one as far as South Carolinians are concerned. This is irrevocable.

Fred Thompson offered a more nuanced position on the flag:
"Not everyone who flies the flag is a racist, but some people who fly it are. It should not be flown in public places."
Again, Southern conservatives were likely not pleased by these remarks. And South Carolinians are probably going to ask him about the flag flying in front of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia. After being disappointed by Mitt Romney's remarks, these voters were probably waiting for "the great conservative hope" to say the flag meant "standing up for states' rights," which can mean many things including a code word for racism. I once compared Fred Thompson to Barack Obama prior to his late entry in the race because of the enthusiasm surrounding his campaign. However, it now seems like his candidacy has fallen to the ground with an unceremonious thud. If Thompson can't keep White Southern conservative males in his tent, then he has no base left.

Disaffected Democrats watching this debate probably were not converted last night. Aside from Huckabee, Paul, and maybe McCain, none of the Republican candidates gave any reasons why they should be President. Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson were all too busy trying to cut each other down. And when they weren't doing that, they were busy avoiding giving straight answers. (Consider Romney's backing away from the question about looking forward to the day when gays can openly serve in the military.) I can't help but wonder if Republicans feel the same way about their frontrunner candidates as the Democrats do about theirs because it seems like the candidates who should be getting all the attention are the ones further in the back of the pack. Huckabee, Paul, and McCain seem much better qualified for the presidency than Romney, Thompson, and Giuliani. The same holds true for Richardson, Biden, and Dodd for the Democrats.

As for the Democrats, even though she wasn't on stage last night, Hillary Clinton still managed to find a way to get involved in negative politics. One of the men who asked a question at the debate was a member of Clinton's steering committee. In addition to making CNN look biased, it reminded voters of the scandal that characterized the Clinton years. That should motivate Republicans and depress Democrats, thus feeding into the notion that she is the most beatable Democrat. The question was about letting gays serve in the military. It was a good question, especially since gays are being discharged even though they may be proficient Arabic speakers who are invaluable given the War on Terror. However, the scandalous side of the story threatens to overpower the actual issue, and that is unfortunate.

It is worth noting that the man who posed this question was a gay 43-year Army veteran and a retired one-star general. When he challenged why gays should be discharged for their sexual orientation, the audience actually booed him. I thought that was in terribly bad form, especially from voters who commonly criticize Democrats for not "supporting the troops." Some pundits criticized the media for even including this question in a Republican debate because "it's not an issue that matters to Republican voters," but I disagree. If the GOP is serious about moving beyond straight White Christian males with shotguns, then it's going to have to be serious about addressing these issues.

All in all, the main questions that I think will emerge from this debate are the following:

1. Will Huckabee replace Romney as the Christian conservative alternative to Giuliani?

2. Is Fred Thompson relevant?

3. At what point will conservatives refuse to further compromise their values by supporting Giuliani?

4. Will New Hampshire independents support Obama or McCain?

5. Can Romney recover?

11/28/2007

The Republican YouTube Debate: Initial Thoughts

Tonight was the long-awaited Republican YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Florida. This debate was a particularly nasty one in which several candidates drew blood. This post will only provide a general overview of my thoughts on the debate. A more detailed analysis of the evening's happenings will be written tomorrow or Friday.

The setup

The leading candidates were placed at the center of the stage and the lower-tier candidates were placed on the sides. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani were placed next to each other, which made for several tense exchanges. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter were essentially the bookends on stage. I thought this was a smart decision by CNN. I hope future debate organizers continue this arrangement.

CNN and the moderator

Anderson Cooper did a better job of handling this debate than Wolf Blitzer did at the last CNN Democratic debate in Las Vegas. Keep in mind that "better" is a relative term, rather than an absolute one. Cooper did not have much control over this debate, as the candidates commonly ignored his prompts to wind up their responses, especially in the first half of the debate when most of the fireworks took place. To Cooper's credit, however, he did do a respectable job of following up on some of the candidates' responses and reminding them of the questions they were actually asked.

To CNN's credit, this debate was better produced than the Democratic one and the post-debate analysis was more interesting to watch because they focused on all of the candidates (save for Tancredo and Hunter), instead of just the top two or three (as in the Clinton-Obama lovefest happening with the media and the Democratic race).

Mitt Romney

This debate was a disaster for Romney. He had several weak moments, including getting dressed down by John McCain on torture, getting broadsided by Giuliani on illegal immigration, flubbing a question about believing every word in the Bible, and getting caught flat-footed when his previous remarks about gays in the military blew up in his face. Republicans in South Carolina also likely were not impressed with his answer on the Confederate flag. In short, Romney came across as someone who had no core convictions, and that is not presidential at all.

Rudy Giuliani

Giuliani turned in a stronger performance than Romney, but his problems with social conservatives are not going away. I believe there is significant overlap between voters who value national security and voters who value their rights to bear firearms. Giuliani's hedging response to the question about access to guns probably gave these voters some pause. And will talk about "appointing strict constructionist judges" really be enough to offset the fact that he is obviously a pro-choice federalist? Women voters also might not have liked the way he attacked Mitt Romney on the issue of illegal immigrants working at his "sanctuary mansion." Giuliani did mention September 11 again tonight, but it did not seem to have the potency it once did.

Fred Thompson

Thompson's performance was a bit steadier than Giuliani's and Romney's, but I get the sense that his ship has sailed. He had a few funny lines, but his answers were often droning, uneven, and uninspiring. Questions about how seriously he is taking this campaign will not be doused by his performance tonight. And for a candidate who is trying to position himself as the favorite of Southern conservatives, will they be disappointed by his statements about the Confederate flag? Moderates and more progressive-minded voters were likely pleased, but I notice when he made those remarks, there was very little applause from the audience. Thompson didn't hurt himself tonight, but I don't think he will emerge with much momentum.

John McCain

McCain was arguably the winner of the debate. His answers were firm and he came across as a resolute, pragmatic, honest, battle-tested statesman. He seemed to be the grown-up on stage, as his remarks placed him above the fray that was developing between Romney and Giuliani. The moral authority he had regarding torture came through in the way he criticized Romney for not unequivocally stating that he was against the practice of waterboarding. Independent New Hampshire voters likely were reminded of the John McCain they fell in love with in 2000. The question for McCain, however, is how many of these independent voters will actually vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary? Keep in mind that independents can vote in any party primary they wish. Will these independents show up at the polls for McCain? Or will they show up for Barack Obama?

Mike Huckabee

Simply put, Mike Huckabee is serious. I've been writing about Huckabee for several months now and the evidence continues to mount that this is probably the single most difficult Republican for Democrats to defeat, especially if the Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton. He successfully fielded several potentially dangerous questions, such as a question about the apparent contradiction between being pro-life and supporting the death penalty. He also had the line of the night in which he said that Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office. Evangelical Christians have found their candidate, and it's not Mitt Romney. I have detected a change in the way the media are covering Huckabee over the past week or so, however. Some of the questions he received were softballs, like the question about how much of the Bible he believed. I expect him to have to explain his policies in more detail in the future, as opposed to simply explaining his values. When will he be asked about his desire to eliminate the Internal Revenue Service, for example? Anyway, people often talk about a Giuliani-Huckabee ticket, but if Huckabee keeps up these strong performances, he may very well emerge as the lone remaining conservative alternative to a Rudy Giuliani nomination.

Ron Paul

I get the sense that the other Republican candidates are absolutely sick of Ron Paul. His foreign policy and Iraq positions are clearly out of step with the GOP base and the audience made their disapproval known several times when they booed him. However, of all the candidates, Ron Paul did the most thorough job of explaining his policies and why his opponents' policies were wrong. One of his best moments came when he talked about the folly of spending so much money to "blow up bridges and buildings in Iraq when we could use that money to build bridges and buildings here." One of the questions he received asked if he would run as an independent in the event that he doesn't win the Republican nomination. Even though the establishment clearly doesn't seem to like him, I sense that his appeal among regular voters is quite real.

Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter

There really is no point in keeping these two candidates on stage. Neither candidate brought much to the debate in terms of their own ideas or putting other candidates on the defensive. When will Tancredo and Hunter get the Mike Gravel and Alan Keyes treatment?

In short...

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani are probably not feeling too hot right now.

John McCain and Mike Huckabee should continue their rise in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively.

Fred Thompson stopped the bleeding in the polls, but it might be too little too late.

Ron Paul is directing his own movie.

Expect a tightening of the polls in the early voting states and nationwide over the next few days. The race for the GOP presidential nomination is truly a case study in political schizophrenia.

A more detailed analysis will follow later this week.

11/16/2007

Nevada Debate Analysis (D)

(NOTE: This post is about the Democratic debate that took place in Nevada in November 2007. For my analysis of the Democratic debate that took place in Nevada in January 2008, click here.)

As promised, here is my analysis of the Democratic debate in Las Vegas last night:

Hillary Clinton: Clinton clearly did her homework and it paid off for her. In addition to squashing the negative news cycles she has been enduring for the past two weeks, she regained her momentum, shifted the negative stories to her rivals, and made no obvious mistakes. But most importantly, she spoke with confidence and seemed to be in control.

Before going any further, it is important to note that Clinton seemed to have home field advantage at the debate. The audience was clearly biased towards her, as they booed John Edwards and Barack Obama when they attacked her on occasion. CNN should have done a better job of establishing a few ground rules prior to the debate because this made the debate seem more like a pep rally at times. It also seemed like she had a heckler or a ringer in the audience that gave Obama a hard time while he was answering a question about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. How Clinton would have responded if she had to deal with these situations is a mystery.

She also benefited from fairly gentle treatment from the moderators, at least in comparison to the other candidates. Barack Obama was questioned particularly aggressively by Wolf Blitzer. Hillary Clinton's final question was about diamonds and pearls. There were rumors that the Clinton camp had been intimidating CNN and Wolf Blitzer, and I can't help but wonder if these rumors were indeed true after watching the debate. She should consider herself exceptionally lucky.

As for her performance, she was not afraid to go on offense. She methodically dismantled Barack Obama and John Edwards when it came to talking about health care, trade with China, and her "double-talk." And as an added bonus, she was able to put down her rivals and pivot to running against Republicans, thus reminding voters of the inevitability storyline that had been developing: "When it came time to step up on health care, [Obama] chose not to do so. Republicans will not vacate the White House without a fight. We need someone who can fight!"

That's how you do it.

John Edwards and Barack Obama certainly think Clinton is most vulnerable on Iran, but she has clearly found a way to be a hawk, a dove, cautious, and tough at the same time. Consider this paraphrased quote: "I oppose rushing to war and want to stress that Bush has no legal authority to go to war. We need aggressive diplomacy and a ratcheting down of tensions. But we must prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. It's important to remember that the Iranian Army is a terrorist group because they are providing training and weapons to people in Iraq who are attacking our soldiers. I oppose war with Iran, but we have to get tough."

How does an opponent respond to this?!

This is not to say that Clinton didn't have her flaws. There were still a few times when she had trouble giving a yes or no answer, such as talking about the success of NAFTA and supporting merit-based pay for teachers. However, because of the gift to her from Obama (who got bogged down by the same question that had dogged her earlier), people will be more likely to remember his inability to answer yes or no than hers.

As for the gender card, she was given a softball question about this from CNN newcomer Campbell Brown and she turned it into an easy home run that allowed her to play the gender card while saying she doesn't need to. The best way for the other candidates to deal with this is to simply not talk about it because her gender will always be a subtext of her campaign and they really can't attack her because of it. A lot of people are excited about the prospect of the first female president, and women make up a majority of the Democratic base.

Interestingly, Clinton praised rival Joe Biden again during this debate when it came to talking about Pakistan and Supreme Court appointments. When she did this at an earlier debate, people wondered if Biden was trying to be her vice president or secretary of state, but Biden shot that idea down. In light of the tightening Iowa polls, could it be that Clinton views Biden as an ally in that he could siphon off support from Obama and Edwards? Edwards stands the most to lose from a possible Biden ascendancy because Obama is clearly the change candidate, not Edwards. Edwards can't run as the experience candidate because that's Clinton. This means Edwards is left with the outsider mantle. Will Biden's competence trump Edwards' outsider status? Keep in mind, Edwards has probably driven up his own personal negatives to the point of no return because of how aggressive he had been towards Clinton in this debate and the one in Philadelphia. By praising Biden, she could be raising his stock value in an attempt to blunt Edwards.

Barack Obama: Obama was inexplicably unprepared to answer the very same question that Clinton got tripped up on at the last debate in Philadelphia. After hammering Clinton for not being able to offer a clear answer on whether illegal aliens should be allowed to obtain driver's licenses, he did the exact same thing he criticized her for. His advisers should have done a better job of prepping him for this debate because the candidates and their handlers had to know this issue would come up.

Obama's response talked about his past votes in the Illinois state legislature, the need for public safety, cracking down on employers, and border security. And the more he extended his response, the worse he looked. Hillary Clinton had to be licking her chops when this happened because it immediately transferred the yoke of evasion from her to him as far as the media were concerned.

This question matters because it will provide a counternarrative to his otherwise passable performance and make it harder for him to pound away at Clinton's evasiveness. In his very first comments of the night, he scolded Clinton by saying "people are looking for straight answers to tough questions." In light of Obama's own inability to do this, this charge loses its potency.

To be fair, Obama did call the driver's license question a distracting wedge issue. He said that "undocumented workers don't come to America to drive. They come here to work." Notice how he was trying so hard to keep referring to "illegal immigrants" as "undocumented workers." This nomenclature will undoubtedly be a major issue next year.

Obama did contrast this low moment with a solid home run, however. When asked about where to store nuclear waste (including nuclear waste from Illinois), he was having trouble giving a direct answer because of NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) syndrome. No politician ever wants to be forced to defend storing nuclear waste in any voters' communities, so it's understandable that Obama could not give a firm answer to this question. Wolf Blitzer tried to pin him down and that's when Obama turned a losing issue into great television. "I reject the notion that we can't meet our energy challenges." This led to a strong reminder of one of the main appeals of Obama: inspiration.

In contrast with this light moment, Obama also took off the gloves and engaged Clinton directly a few times. Their first sharp exchange happened immediately after the debate started and was about whose health care plan covered more people. This exchange was largely bluster. Joe Biden put an end to that spat by putting things back in perspective.

The second meaningful exchange was about Social Security and adjusting payroll taxes. Obama's most memorable attack line was "6% of Americans is not the middle class! It's the upper class! This is what I would expect from a Mitt Romney or a Rudy Giuliani!" However, this comparison to Giuliani and Romney led to a chorus of boos from the audience which was clearly partisan.

One final note: On Iraq, Obama said the troops could be removed from Iraq within 16 months. That is a direct contrast with what he said at an earlier debate in which he could not guarantee that all the troops would be out of Iraq by the end of his first presidential term in 2013. For any politician who dares to run an attack ad on Obama criticizing him for flip-flopping, here's your ad material.

In short, I believe Obama has a lot of potential, but this debate showed that in many regards, he is still a novice politician. His lack of preparation on the driver's license issue was inexplicable. He needs to be more adept at taking advantage of his opponents' vulnerabilities when they arise in debates and avoid setting himself up for accusations of hypocrisy, especially since he has missed several critical votes in the Senate. The moderator reminded Obama that he didn't vote on the Kyl-Lieberman resolution. Obama said "that was a pitfall of running for president" and acknowledged that this was "a mistake." Of course, that opened himself up to be attacked on his "judgment," but fortunately for Obama, nobody did. These are the kinds of things he needs to work on.

John Edwards: I get the sense that the deck was stacked against Edwards last night. Clinton and Obama were placed next to each other and their podiums were located at the center of the stage. John Edwards was placed off to the side in West Berlin and was separated from Clinton and Obama by Chris Dodd. I don't know how the podiums had been assigned, but it is quite coincidental that the "Big Two" were both given center stage positions next to each other--again.

Having said that, Edwards also made some foolish choices that probably ended his campaign hopes. He is generally running third nationally and is fading in Iowa, so Edwards obviously has to take a few more chances. This would explain why he was probably the most aggressive candidate on stage last night, but it blew up in his face.

Exhibit A: Edwards launched a hard attack on Clinton criticizing her for her contradictions on Iraq, Iran, Social Security, and fair and open government. However, Clinton deftly retorted that "Democrats shouldn't throw mud" and that "attacks should at least be accurate, rather than something out of the GOP playbook." This exchange made Edwards look mean. It also probably didn't go over too well with women. Clinton then reminded voters that Edwards had opposed universal health care earlier. Talk about taking one step forward and three steps back!

Exhibit B: Moderator Wolf Blitzer asked all the candidates if they would agree to support the Democratic nominee, regardless of whoever she (or he) may be. Edwards was the first candidate to receive this question. His response: "Is that a planted question?" Ugh. Needless to say, the only person laughing at this quip was him. This remark exposed Edwards as childish, which also happens to be the exact opposite of presidential.

Exhibit C: All the candidates had to field a question about dealing with Pakistan and its state of emergency. John Edwards had the unenviable task of having to answer this question after Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, both of whom are immensely more qualified on foreign policy than him. Biden talked about how he had talked with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto before President George Bush did. Bill Richardson talked about the importance of understanding Pakistani election history. John Edwards tried to keep up with them, but could only address Pakistan using broad statements like "we must do everything we can to ensure a stable Pakistan" and "my goal is to rid the world of nuclear weapons." This direct contrast potentially unmasks Edwards as an inexperienced lightweight while elevating Biden and Richardson.

Exhibit D: Dennis Kucinich also drew blood on Edwards when the issue of Chinese product safety came up. Kucinich railed against Edwards for initially voting to liberalize trade with China, "especially since he was a trial lawyer." Edwards took issue with this and said he "didn't know what being a trial lawyer had to do with this." Kucinich then deadpanned, "product liability."

Zing!

Embarrassed, Edwards then tried to cut his losses by chuckling "that's very cute, Dennis" while trying not to look at him. I haven't seen many people mention this exchange in their debate analyses, but I personally think this was fatal because it showed that Edwards was guilty of doing the exact same thing he had been criticizing Clinton for: taking two stands on the issues and not being a true agent of change. He tried to explain the apparent contradiction by saying that he's not taking multiple positions on issues at the same time, unlike Clinton. I don't think his explanation will resonate with undecideds or soft supporters though.

Exhibit E: Edwards said all candidates should be held to the same standard and that "voters should know the differences without it being attack-oriented." Is this guy serious? When Edwards said this, he was actually booed by the crowd. The crowd's behavior was in bad form, but the fact that Edwards had the gall to imply that he's not "attack-oriented" suggests that he thinks voters aren't paying attention.

To Edwards' credit, he did offer a strong answer on the issue of Supreme Court judges. He talked about the need to have "judges who have a backbone" and placed it in the context of growing up in the South during segregation. That was a strong response that reminded voters of his appeal to Red State voters (most of whom live in the South) who remember the societal advances that came from "judicial activism."

Unfortunately for Edwards though, he is losing momentum and fast. Iowans don't like nasty politics. 2004 losers Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt found that out the hard way.

Bill Richardson: Richardson turned in a stronger performance at this debate compared to previous ones, but he still seemed to underwhelm when considering his extensive resume. He did not really join in the food fight between Obama, Edwards, and Clinton, so that allowed him to remain above the fray. The problem with Bill Richardson, however, is that his policy views don't seem to match what you would expect given his record. Consider his very first opportunity to speak: "John Edwards wants to start a class war. Barack Obama wants to start a generational war. Hillary Clinton's plans don't seem to end the Iraq War. All I want to do is give peace a chance."

This line was obviously rehearsed, but the main problem with it is that this is the type of rhetoric you would expect to hear from an antiwar liberal like Dennis Kucinich, not a pro-gun Western Democrat executive who has gone toe-to-toe with Saddam Hussein and the North Koreans. Why Richardson chose not to run as a moderate on Iraq is one of the great mysteries of his campaign. For moderate and conservative Democrats who worry that the Democratic Party is being pulled too far to the left, there was a tremendous opportunity for Richardson to fill the void that was created by the exits of Mark Warner and Evan Bayh. But he has chosen to run to the left on Iraq, thus allowing Hillary Clinton to occupy the center all by herself without ceding the left entirely to Obama and Edwards. Centrist voters are less likely to want a quick withdrawal from Iraq with a timetable, so this segment of voters is probably not big on Richardson's Iraq policy even if they do agree with him on taxes and guns.

Anyway, on the other issues discussed, some of Richardson's ideas seemed quite popular, especially when it came to education. Teachers would surely love to have a minimum salary of $40,000 and parents would love to have full-day kindergarten. He also demonstrated a solid understanding of foreign policy when he talked about Pakistan's elections and voting patterns.

Unfortunately, Richardson made one terrible political mistake that Republicans will undoubtedly pummel him with should he win the nomination. When asked if human rights were more important than national security (this was a proxy question about torture), he said that human rights were more important. Richardson also said the surge in Iraq is not working. Left wing Democrats may like those answers, but smart Democrats probably winced in discomfort. This plays right into Republican rhetoric about the "defeatist Democrats" being soft on terrorism and placing the rights of terrorists above the security of Americans.

What will the fallout from these remarks be? Well, Richardson's chances of winning the nomination are already slim. People who remember how he rushed to Clinton's defense in previous debates thought he was angling to be her vice president. In light of these remarks about national security, that's not going to happen. Clinton's electoral math is already complicated enough because of her high personal negatives. Giving Republicans another weapon that plays into one of their few remaining strengths is a risk Clinton would be better off not taking.

Richardson also had better find a more effective response to the question of illegal immigration. When asked what he would do to combat it, he said he would tell the Mexican government to "give jobs to your people!" This response did not seem sufficiently serious. Just like Mitt Romney has to be careful with the religion question, Barack Obama has to be careful with the race question, and Hillary Clinton has to be careful with the gender question, Bill Richardson has to be careful with the illegal immigration question. People who had doubted Richardson because of this very issue likely were not pleased.

Joe Biden: If I had to choose a single winner from the debate, it would be Joe Biden. In the limited time he had to speak, he struck a good balance between humor, seriousness, directness, and empathy. The clamoring over Hillary Clinton's "evasiveness" had cast a pall over all the Democrats because of their tendency to not answer direct questions with simple answers, presumably because they don't want to damage their prospects in a general election. But Joe Biden has become the straight-shooting statesman in the field. And the more Clinton, Obama, and Edwards kick up dirt, the more that elevates Biden.

The debate got off to a rough start, as Obama and Clinton fought with each other over not being straight with voters, who the true agent of change was, and whose health care plan covered more people. I thought this debate was going to be one of the nastiest ones yet until Biden got a chance to inject a bit of sanity and maturity into the dialogue. He correctly said that most Americans don't really care about the petty squabbles that have taken up so much oxygen. Instead, they care about paying their mortgages, their kids running into drug dealers, and their family members being sent off to Iraq. And that's when he had one of his best lines of the night: "It's not about experience. It's not about change. It's about action." Then he immediately pivoted to the importance of the next president being able to deal with the high stakes game of dealing with Pakistan and Russia. As he was speaking, the camera switched to the crowd and I saw a lot of people sitting there nodding their heads in agreement.

Biden later gave what was perhaps the most thorough analysis of the Pakistani problem that I have heard in any debate so far, regardless of party. When he talked about the importance of winning over Pakistan's middle class, he displayed a level of depth on this subject that the other candidates all had trouble matching when they were tasked with following up on his remarks.

Like Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich, Biden didn't really get a lot of chances to speak at the debate. However, he was quite adept at maximizing these opportunities. He often began his statements with self-deprecating humor that woke up the audience and captured their attention. When he received his first question about 15 minutes into the debate, he started off by lampooning the lack of questions he had been receiving in these debates. "Oh no! Please! Don't make me speak! You don't want to hear from me! No, no, no!" The audience was roaring with laughter upon hearing that. But as soon as the laughter died down, he was able to capitalize on their now undivided attention with his seriousness and maturity. That was an effective way of turning a disadvantage into a great opportunity.

The forcefulness and directness of his responses also likely pleased the audience. When he said that Bush should be impeached if he were to attack Iran without congressional approval and that Republicans also don't like the situation in Iraq, but are simply too afraid of challenging Bush, he seemed more sincere in his frankness than the leading candidates did with their longwinded responses that were often taken from their stump speeches. For voters seeking straight talk and firmness, Biden's words likely had some resonance.

Chris Dodd: One really has to feel sorry for Dodd. He has never really gotten a fair shake in any of the debates thus far, and this debate was no exception. He barely got any chances to participate and was cut off before he could finish his thoughts. His strongest moment came when he was asked about education and merit-based pay for teachers. Dodd said that excellence could be defined by teachers volunteering to serve in lower income and forgotten neighborhoods. This is an honest liberal argument that counters the conservative argument of taking funds away from underperforming schools that are often located in these lower income areas.

Dodd also received a question about the relationship between illegal immigration and terrorism. The question was asked by what appeared to be a Latino. Dodd burst into fluent Spanish, much to the delight of many people in the audience. After all, Nevada and Las Vegas have sizeable Spanish-speaking populations. However, as Dodd continued addressing the questioner in Spanish, I got the sense that the rest of the audience became a bit uncomfortable because they could not understand what he was saying. (For the record, he said he had served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.) Look for immigration and the idea of English as an "official" vs. "common" language making the rounds as a campaign wedge issue in the general election.

The biggest problem with Dodd's candidacy now is Joe Biden. Dodd can match Biden in terms of experience, intellect, and grasp of foreign policy. He demonstrated his understanding of the complexities of foreign policy when he talked about why we couldn't afford to alienate Pakistan despite Musharraf's recent crackdown on democracy because that's our only way into Afghanistan. He also displayed pragmatism and thoughtfulness when talking about the danger of establishing litmus tests for the Supreme Court nominees. Dodd warned that liberal litmus tests under a Democratic president today could turn into conservative litmus tests under a Republican president tomorrow. These types of comments suggest that Dodd is quite wise and capable. However, he is not using his limited talk time as efficiently as Biden is. After breaking out in the Philadelphia debate, he somewhat got lost in the shuffle tonight. Of all the so-called "second-tier" candidates, Dodd is the most obscure.

Dennis Kucinich: Kucinich was visibly irritated tonight and justifiably so. He did not get a lot of chances to participate in the debate and when he actually did receive a question, the moderator commonly interrupted him. Despite his limited opportunities to participate, he did make a few strong points. Kucinich had no allies on the stage last night and commonly turned his fire on them. On the issues of Iraq, the Patriot Act, NAFTA, and trade with China, he harshly criticized his rivals for being on the wrong side of those issues in the beginning only to want to change those positions later after the issues did not work out as they had hoped. This statement alone lent Kucinich a great deal of credibility. After all, this "loony UFO-seeing antiwar liberal crackpot" is indeed on the right side of public opinion on all of these issues and maintained these positions even when it wasn't politically popular to do so.

Unfortunately for Kucinich, he was often marginalized by the moderators. One of the questions was supposedly a "down the line" question for all the candidates to answer. Clinton, Richardson, Biden, Obama, Edwards, and Dodd all got a bite of the apple, but before Kucinich got his chance, the moderator switched to another question which left Kucinich literally flailing his hands and saying, "hello? Hello? You forgot me!" Yes, Kucinich is probably the longest of longshots in the Democratic field, but ignoring him at the debates you invite him to is in very bad form. It shows a lack of respect for him as a candidate and a lack of respect for his ideas. Consider this angry response to a question about illegal immigration: "There aren't illegal human beings. I take exception to the way you phrase that question." While this view might not be one that is commonly shared, it at least deserves to be discussed. But he never got the chance to do so.

Predictions:

Prediction #1: John Edwards will not win Iowa. And because Edwards needs to win Iowa in order to advance to New Hampshire, he will drop out of the race. Edwards is starting to look like a desperate college basketball team full of seniors that is trailing by 15 points with two minutes to go in the NCAA Tournament game that will send them to the Final Four. What do basketball teams do in this situation? They keep fouling and sending the other team to the free throw line in an attempt to stop the clock, hope the other team throws up a brick, and make up their point deficit when they get the ball back. Of course, all this does is lead to jeers from the other team because everybody knows the game is over. John Edwards is going to need help from another candidate in the form of an unforced error in order to salvage any chance at the nomination. But at this point, it looks like he's in danger of placing third or even being overtaken by one of the "second-tier" candidates. Should Edwards' campaign come to an end, look for him to endorse Obama because they both offer the same message of bold and exciting change.

Prediction #2: Joe Biden is the most credible so-called "second tier" candidate. If anyone wants to bet on a dark horse to place in the top 3 in Iowa, Biden is where you want to place your money. The 7-10 is an independent and nonpartisan blog, but it seems quite obvious to me that Biden is the strongest, best qualified candidate in the Democratic field. The media generally don't focus much on anyone not named Obama, Clinton, or Edwards on the Democratic side of the ledger, but when they do, it's usually Biden whose name pops up. MSNBC's Chuck Todd seems to have caught on. And it seems like readers of the Washington Post and New York Times have also caught on, judging from the comments they posted about the debate here (WaPo) and here (NYT). Do not be surprised if Richardson and Dodd instruct their supporters to throw their support behind Biden in the event that their own campaigns come to an end because those two candidates are far closer to Biden in terms of the experience and maturity they bring to the table than they are to Obama and Edwards. I can't help but wonder if Dodd, Biden, and Richardson harbor a bit of resentment towards Obama, Edwards, and even Clinton because even though they have superior resumes, they have been totally ignored by the media. So perhaps they have an implicit understanding that they will look out for each other for experience's sake.

11/15/2007

Nevada Debate Analysis: A CNN Critique

This post is only an analysis of CNN's coverage of the Democratic debate tonight in Las Vegas.

Of all the debates I've seen so far, be they Republican or Democratic, this debate was among the most poorly conducted. I admittedly like CNN and generally respect its programming, but I was particularly disappointed by its handling of the debate tonight. As a journalism graduate and a journalism student, I offer these criticisms:

There's no point in having a moderator if the moderator doesn't have any control. Wolf Blitzer essentially let the candidates talk over him and ignore his feeble attempts to rein them in when they strayed off topic. As a result, this undermined Blitzer's authority and made the debate seem more like a free for all at times. Blitzer also should have exercised more control over the audience, as some members of the crowd started shouting at the candidates during their responses, which was entirely inappropriate. I realize that debates are often tough to moderate because politicians can be egotistical at times and tend to steer their responses back to their familiar talking points. But it is not unreasonable to expect more from a moderator than what Blitzer offered tonight.

There's no point in inviting all the candidates to the debate if you're not going to let all the candidates participate. According to this tally from MSNBC's First Read, Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich had less than 10 minutes each of talking time while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had more than twice as much time. It is very disrespectful to the lower polling candidates to ask them to participate in these forums only to not give them the chance to actually participate. Dennis Kucinich was visibly annoyed by this and rightfully so.

There's no point in conducting a post-debate analysis if your "analysis" only consists of talking about two of the seven candidates involved. The debate finished at about 10:10 and CNN replayed it at 11:00. During the 50 minutes between the debate and its repeat, the analysts talked about Clinton, Obama, Clinton, Obama, and Clinton with an occasional mention of Edwards before returning to Clinton. Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Dennis Kucinich were not mentioned at all by any of the analysts even though some of them turned in solid debate performances. It is worth noting that two of CNN's political analysts include James Carville and David Gergen, both of whom have served with Bill Clinton. I cannot say for sure that these analysts are biased, but it certainly seemed that way based on who they talked about in their analyses. Perhaps including more voices in the post-debate analysis would help, although Campbell Brown, John Roberts, and Anderson Cooper also kept the discussion focused on Clinton and Obama.

There should not be any excuses for having production problems at these debates at this stage of the game. CNN's post-debate analysis was riddled with production and technical problems. When Anderson Cooper tried to cue video clips from the debate for the other analysts to comment on, there were several instances in which the videos either weren't ready or weren't available. Shouldn't CNN have its A-team in charge of putting on these debates? This led to lots of dead air and weak improvising that led to generic "I agree with Analyst X" comments.

There's no point in making television viewers wait 10 minutes while the candidates engage in a photo-op on stage. The opening introduction of the candidates was a nice touch, but the debate should have gotten started immediately after that. It was not necessary for the candidates to stand there while the crowd took pictures and shook their hands before the debate even started. How many viewers tuned out before the first question was even asked? It would be a better use of airtime for the public relations and logistical aspects of the debate to take place after the debate or before the network goes on the air.

There's no point in saying that questions are unscripted or are from average voters when they obviously aren't. How many average voters knew that today was Bill Richardson's birthday? Most political junkies probably didn't even know that! And if you're going to let an audience member ask a question, at least give that person a chance to work on their stage presence before gametime. One of the random questioners had great difficulty actually getting around to her question. I was worried that some of the candidates wouldn't be able to understand her because of her meandering and seeming to get lost in her own words.

There's no point in saying you are fair and impartial if the moderator is clearly more aggressive with some candidates than with others. Wolf Blitzer was much tougher on Barack Obama than he was on Hillary Clinton. After grilling Obama on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and chastising him for not giving a simple yes or no answer, he allowed Clinton to skate by on the question with a simple "no" even though her position on this issue had changed repeatedly at the last debate in Philadelphia.

My analysis of the candidates' individual performances can be found here. As for CNN though, this was not their best night.

Update: I found this article by Ginger Marks of the National Ledger which agrees that this debate was poorly handled. To my pleasant surprise, The 7-10 was cited in the story.

11/01/2007

Pennsylvania Debate Analysis (D)

The Democratic presidential candidates mixed it up last night in Philadelphia at what was their most contentious debate thus far. One of the many storylines going into the debate was whether anybody could stop the Clinton steamroller. Coming out of the debate, the storyline is that Clinton finally took one on the chin and now looks vulnerable. She committed an unforced error that provided the weapon all the candidates can use to take her down.

About Mike Gravel:

The debate lasted two hours and involved all the candidates except for Mike Gravel. Gravel was not missed, as the flow of the debate seemed a bit less disjointed. In the previous debates, whenever Gravel spoke, I got the sense that listeners would roll their eyes and attempt to tune him out. Because he often said something awkward or outlandish (such as his assertion that he didn't need to repay his credit card debt), the audience would laugh or shake their heads in disbelief. That would detract from the tone of the discussion. There were no such moments in last night's debate, which was appropriate given the fact that the Iowa caucuses are in just two months. Future debate organizers should consider following NBC/MSNBC's lead by being a bit more selective with who they invite to participate.

About the moderators:

Regarding the moderators and the debate format, I was a bit disappointed by Brian Williams' and Tim Russert's performance. While I highly respect them as journalists and pundits, I believe they demonstrated a lack of discipline and exhibited poor judgment in the following regards:

1. The appropriateness of the questions. At the end of the debate, Dennis Kucinich received a question asking him if he had seen a UFO. Even though the debate had essentially entered garbage time (there likely wasn't enough time for the candidates to engage each other over another substantial policy difference), I thought this question made a mockery of Kucinich, his platform, and his campaign. Kucinich's performance overall was quite steady and forceful, but instead of being remembered for his challenges for Democrats to impeach President Bush and Vice President Cheney for launching what he calls an illegal war, he will be remembered as the loony liberal wacko who saw a UFO. How he responded to this question was not Kucinich's fault, but I can't help but wonder if the moderators asked him that question in an attempt to broadside him and make his candidacy seem less credible. This, in turn, could be used to serve as a rationale for excluding him from future debates. If that's the case, I think this is a tacky and unprofessional way to go about doing so. (It is worth noting that the moderator then asked Barack Obama the same question, but he wisely avoided it.) Maybe this question was benign, but I think a more appropriate garbage question would have been to ask each candidate down the line what they would dress up as for Halloween. Anyway, in our current political culture of soundbytes and character assassinations, anytime a politician is caught off message or in an awkward conversation, that can be fatal. Brad Warthen over at The State wrote an excellent post about these out-of-bounds questions.

2. The balancing of the questions. Excluding Kucinich's UFO question, Hillary Clinton received as many questions as Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden combined. Yes, Clinton is the candidate sitting at the top of the polls, but if you want to have a debate that allows for the maximum exchange of policy differences, I believe it would be more effective to involve as many candidates as possible.

3. How they handled their responsibilities as moderators. The moderators did an appalling job of dealing with candidates who either didn't answer their questions or talked over their allotted time. There was little enforcement of the rules when the candidates filibustered, especially during the so-called "lightning round." For some reason, politicians are not capable of condensing their answers to 30 seconds, although Joe Biden tried his best to do so. What's the point of having a 30-second rule if there is no penalty for speaking for 2 minutes? When the candidates ignored the moderators' prompts to wrap up their responses, that undercut the moderators' authority.

Also, why did the moderators use the "lightning round" to ask questions about education policy? How can issues as complicated as school funding and No Child Left Behind adequately be addressed in 30 seconds? That's how long it takes for most politicians just to get through their talking points!

About the candidates:

Hillary Clinton: Clinton had a scarlet X on her back throughout the debate, as she was the target of most of the attacks and most of the moderators' questions. For the first 75% of the debate, she stuck to her playbook of keeping her responses general, her rivals unnamed, and her focus on the failings of President Bush and the Republicans. She clearly had done her debate homework, as she came up with some good responses to prickly questions. In response to questions about her positions being similar to those of Republicans, she said the Republicans think she's a liberal based on how much they attack her. That was a clever way to defuse that question because it's difficult to refute.

She also hit Obama hard by saying "change is just a word if you don't have the experience to make change happen." (Can you imagine Obama delivering a line like this?) Of course, this set her up for an attack by Obama later on when the discussion switched to her issue of "experience." (More on that later.)

Clinton's main threat during the debate wasn't Obama, however. It was John Edwards. Edwards kept hammering home the idea that Clinton didn't take a clear stand on major issues and was evasive in her responses. In other words, she talks a lot, but only says a little. As he kept bringing this up, Clinton offered more and more evidence that supported Edwards' assertions. She offered vague and squirrelly responses on her Iran vote ("I'm not in favor of a rush to war. I'm not in favor of doing nothing."), troop levels in Iraq ("We'd bring out combat troops, but not troops fighting Al Qaeda."), Social Security ([paraphrased quote] "Hyping up the Social Security threat is a Republican talking point, but to address Social Security, we must first achieve fiscal responsibility."), and taxes ("I want to get to a fair and progressive tax system, but I won't get committed to a specific approach."). The moderators tried to pin her down, but she remained vague and noncommittal.

This strategy seemed to serve her well until near the end of the debate when "The Moment" happened. Moderator Tim Russert asked Clinton if she supported New York Governor Elliot Spitzer's proposal to offer driver's licenses to illegal aliens in their state. Clinton gave a thoughtful, but tortured answer about how "undocumented workers" should "come out of the shadows" and how "comprehensive immigration reform" was necessary, but never quite said whether she supported his policy. Russert pressed her on this, but she offered the same vague response. Chris Dodd then jumped in and said he thought driver's licenses were a "privilege" that should not be extended to illegal aliens. The conciseness of his response contrasted greatly with Clinton's longwinded, convoluted expressions of support for the goals of Gov. Spitzer's policy without actually endorsing it. John Edwards and Barack Obama soon jumped in and suddenly Clinton looked vulnerable and flustered.

She tried to say this was an example of "gotcha" politics, but the problem with this is that illegal immigration is a much more concrete issue than tax policy or access to records in one's presidential archives. The "I don't do hypotheticals" line won't work either because this is the type of issue that everyone has an opinion on and comes in contact with regularly. While the issue is complicated, it is also an issue on which voters expect a level of clarity from their elected officials. She ultimately proved John Edwards' attacks for him and introduced a new storyline into the race: her evasiveness.

Clinton put herself into a box because she will have to either go against the Democratic governor of the state she represents in the Senate, endure a steady stream of brutal interviews trying to flesh out her views on this issue, or risk angering a political constituency (be they immigrants, Latinos, or immigration hardliners) by taking a stand one way or the other. Another risk for Clinton is that her responses to other questions in the future will receive greater scrutiny. She will need to find a way to be more forthcoming because John Edwards and the other candidates will attempt to drive a bus through this hole in her armor.

John Edwards: No candidate was more aggressive at last night's debate than John Edwards. His poll numbers in must-win Iowa have been on a steady downward trend over the past few weeks, so he had to do something to claw his way back into the race. He repeated several themes: 1) that Hillary Clinton represented the status quo, 2) that Hillary Clinton is not leveling with the American people, and 3) Hillary Clinton is not capable of bringing the change she is promising because she represents exactly why this change is needed in the first place.

The second point is the most damaging. He kept using the word "doubletalk" and applied it to her Iran vote when she said that was a vote for "vigorous diplomacy." In response to Clinton saying that she wanted to put "pressure" on President Bush when it came to a possible war with Iran, Edwards questioned how she could put "pressure" on him if she supported the Kyl-Lieberman resolution. "If you give Bush an inch, he'll take a mile. This resolution enables Bush to do whatever he wants to do and keep using the same lies that he used in Iraq. Some of us have learned the hard way."

It was unclear how effective Edwards' attacks on Clinton's credibility and conviction were until she threw him the golden nugget that was her painful tap dance around the driver's license question.

Win or lose, this is the line that will seal Edwards' fate: "I think our responsibility is to be in tell the truth mode, not in primary mode or general election mode." That was a harsh zinger that was aimed right between Clinton's eyes. Pundits are saying that Edwards might be penalized by Iowa's voters for being too negative, but I'm not so sure. I believe going negative can be effective if your accusations are true and your opponents prove these accusations themselves. It's one thing for Edwards to incessantly say "Clinton doesn't answer questions." But when you can witness her doing just that for yourself, I believe the attack has considerably more resonance.

Barack Obama: Obama was more restrained than Edwards and did not play the role of attack dog as some had anticipated. This is not to say that he left his boxing gloves backstage. However, it is obvious that he is uncomfortable going on offense. The very first question of the debate went to Obama and asked him to elaborate on how he planned to be more aggressive towards Clinton. He balked at the question and turned in another meandering response about civility and cynicism while refusing to attack Clinton directly. For his supporters, this response was probably what they did not want to hear, especially at the start of the debate.

However, he became a bit looser as the debate progressed and he seemed to find his sea legs. When Clinton hedged on the question about releasing documents from Bill Clinton's archives relating to her work in his administration, he effectively used her "turn the page" line against her while questioning her experience by saying "[paraphrased quote] This is an example of not turning the page. We are in the midst of the highly secretive Bush Administration. How can you say you have experience when you're not open about letting people access the documents that show the experience you cite?" That was a good example of Obama showing his spine without showing his fangs.

However, for every time Obama went on offense, he also blurred the distinctions between himself and his main rival. Their responses to the question of taxes for higher income Americans and the breaking point for going to war with Iran were strikingly similar. While Obama did go on offense a bit more at this debate than at the previous ones, I believe he did not meet the high expectations that had been set for him. The media coverage of his campaign from here on out should be interesting to watch because the "Clinton vs. Obama" storyline may become "Obama vs. Edwards." Even though Obama would like to keep the focus on his rivalry with Clinton, having stories about his duels with Edwards is preferable to stories about Obama's fall from grace. Is Obama becoming the Fred Thompson of the Democrats? The hyped up candidate that never quite delivers? He is not out of the race yet by any means, but I sense a growing sense of impatience among his supporters, pundits, and the media.

In short, Obama basically played good cop to Edwards' bad cop when it came to attacking Clinton. But who will win out? Will Edwards' attacks be seen as courageous or nasty? Will Obama's attacks be seen as civil or weak? That will be the new "Obama vs. Edwards" storyline.

Bill Richardson: As qualified as Richardson is on paper, he is turning out to be a weak candidate on stage. Richardson's debate performance was not particularly spirited, nor did he have any memorable lines. He did try to stress his foreign policy credentials and the fact that he has actually achieved results in terms of dealing with dictators and negotiating with rogues, but were the voters listening? He also inexplicably defended Hillary Clinton during the debate because he felt the attacks on her were becoming too personal. Politicians often claim to "take the high road," but they normally do so when citing their own refusal to engage in personal attacks, not to stop their opponents from attacking each other. If your opponents are digging holes for themselves, why take away their shovels? This lends credence to the notion that Richardson is angling for a spot on a Clinton ticket or in a Clinton administration.

Richardson has two problems. The first problem is that he does not come across as credible on Iraq. While he doesn't have any war votes to atone for, there seems to be some level of disconnect because he is maintaining a liberal Democratic position on Iraq ("no residual forces") even though his legislative record as governor of New Mexico clearly demonstrates that he is a moderate (pro-gun rights, fiscal conservative, etc.). His Iraq policy makes him seem like the political equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a tutu. This policy just doesn't seem to match his true identity.

The second problem is that an unflattering caricature of him has congealed: Great candidate on paper, but underwhelming candidate on stage. I had written about overrated and underrated candidates back in August and cited a National Journal poll about this very subject. Richardson received 7% of the vote for the most overrated Democrat. The lone quote National Journal provided about Richardson from one of the poll respondents was "Big resume; big blowhard." Ouch. While I certainly don't think Richardson is a "blowhard," I can see how he may be "overrated." Most of his debate performances so far have been less than inspiring.

In last night's debate, Richardson kept reminding voters of his achievements when he was an ambassador and hostage negotiator. He even mentioned someone in the audience whom he said he had rescued from the Abu Ghraib prison. But as stellar as these accomplishments are, they didn't really resonate with the audience because itemizing these accomplishments ultimately trivializes them. Saying you negotiated with Rogue Thug A and Hot Spot B sounds similar to saying you wrote Bill X and Act Y. In other words, it sounds senatorial rather than inspiring. And now because of the vacant Senate seat in New Mexico that he could easily win, Richardson's presidential campaign is being questioned. He did not do anything to ease these doubts last night.

Joe Biden: Biden did not get a lot of chances to participate in the debate tonight, but he did make the most of the time he did receive. Biden's most impressive response was in response to a question about Iran. Biden methodically talked about the relationship between Iran and Pakistan and how Musharraf was sitting on a powder keg that could be exploited by rogue and terrorist elements, thus helping Iran achieve its nuclear ambitions far more quickly. The depth of this response shows that he would be a tremendously difficult candidate to brand as weak on foreign policy. Biden also got off one of the best lines of the night in a hit on Rudy Giuliani: "Rudy Giuliani is the most underqualified person to run for president since George W. Bush. His sentences only have three things: a noun, a verb, and 9-11." That was a clever line, although Giuliani fired back the next day by invoking the specter of his past plagiarism. ("I don't think Biden came up with that line by himself. You know he doesn't write his own stuff." Ouch.)

Biden was also aware of a gaffe he made at a recent forum in Iowa in which he appeared to blame poor school performance on the percentage of Black students in the school. Statements such as these cause Democrats to only offer tepid support for Biden's campaign. However, he did an excellent job of cleaning up his message on the issue of minorities and education and should have defused this controversy. In general, Biden was strong when he needed to be strong and funny when he needed to be funny. In light of new doubts that have been raised about Clinton, look for Biden to get a second look from Democrats who want an experienced candidate who doesn't enter the general election with a 50% unfavorability rating.

Chris Dodd: Dodd turned in his greatest debate performance by far. He turned in thoughtful responses to questions about education and the environment and gave the lone shoutout to Al Gore. He also launched effective veiled attacks on Barack Obama and John Edwards ("[paraphrased quote] We need a president who has exhibited good judgment and leadership at critical moments. Experience and proven results matter."), but also forcefully called Hillary Clinton's electability into question. The best thing of all about his attack on Clinton was that he was strong without being mean. Clinton's electability has long been the bugaboo that kept so many Democrats from enthusiastically supporting her. Her steady rise in the polls as of late has largely been a result of her persistence in allaying these fears. But Dodd turned back the clock and ripped the scab right off of this sore.

The most important moment of all for Dodd was his fiery exchange with Clinton over the driver's license question for illegal immigrants. When Dodd challenged her over the issue, that led to Obama and Edwards subsequently piling on, which ultimately led to today's news stories about how Clinton was finally bloodied. Not only did Dodd's opposition to granting driver's licenses to illegal aliens match public sentiment in general (most Americans regardless of political party oppose this), but whenever news outlets or YouTube users replay Clinton's stumble, Dodd will get free media time because he's the candidate who brought this entire brouhaha about. Dodd's stock value has gone up quite a bit since 48 hours ago.

Dennis Kucinich: Due to Mike Gravel's absence, Kucinich assumed the role of the gadfly candidate on stage. This is unfortunate, as he represents a very real wing of the Democratic Party. Kucinich's problem is that the perception has overtaken the platform. In other words, I get the sense that people think of Kucinich more as a kook than as an unabashedly liberal candidate. His strength at the debate was his repeated calls to impeach Bush and Cheney and his genuine anger at the weakness of his Democratic opponents and the Democratic congressional leadership. ("Democrats won't stand up to Wall Street, won't end the war, and won't stand up to for-profit insurance companies. What's the difference between Democrats and Republicans?") There is likely more than just a fringe group of Americans who feel the exact same way. Impeaching Bush and Cheney, getting rid of NAFTA, getting out of Iraq, and providing universal not-for-profit healthcare coverage certainly resonate with working class voters, base voters, antiwar voters, and the labor wing of the Democratic Party. And he has more ideological purity on Iraq than any other Democratic candidate. This is the Kucinich platform. But the Kucinich perception is that he is the short, goofy liberal with the big ears who has no shot at winning the nomination. The unfair question about UFOs at the end of the debate totally canceled out an otherwise strong performance because it made voters remember the Kucinich perception at the expense of the Kucinich platform.

Future debate organizers are going to have to do a bit of soul searching with Kucinich. His polling numbers are not better than the margin of error, but the same could be said of Chris Dodd. So if Kucinich were excluded from a future debate, he would have a legitimate gripe if Dodd was also not excluded. Of course, Dodd turned in a strong performance and likely gained some buzz. So why couldn't Kucinich do the same thing? Or is he "too liberal?" What does "too liberal" mean anyway? Far right candidates like Pat Buchanan and Tom Tancredo never generated such disrespect, so why the discrepancy? Basically, if they (the media) are going to invite him to future debates, they should treat him with the same amount of dignity and respect that they afford to the other candidates. Otherwise, it's a bit disingenuous to invite him and then set him up to look like a bozo.

In closing...

Clinton has a very real problem to worry about now.

Obama is on the verge of having the media and his supporters abandon him unless he benefits from Edwards' negativity.

Edwards employed the sword at this debate. The problem is that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword. For now though, he should be feeling pretty good about what happened.

Richardson has become the biggest disappointment among all the candidates.

Biden is quietly gaining street cred with his consistently strong debate performances.

Dodd helped his campaign the most and may become the next buzz candidate. Illegal immigration is a hot issue and he may experience an uptick in support among independents in New Hampshire.

Kucinich was railroaded. Even voters who don't support him probably thought what the moderators did to him was in bad form.

And the debate format and moderating left room for improvement.

But most importantly, we now have a race again.

10/31/2007

Pennsylvania Debate Initial Thoughts (D)

Having just watched the Democratic debate in Philadelphia, I can confidently say that the Democratic horserace just became considerably more competitive. The major news story of the night is that Hillary Clinton proved what John Edwards has been attacking her on all along: her obfuscations, evasiveness, and "doubletalk."

In short...

Hillary Clinton's poll numbers should come crashing back down to earth. Expect her to spend a lot of time doing damage control in the near future because a huge hole was exposed in her armor and the other candidates and the media are going to drive a bus through it. She had better hope the word "doubletalk" doesn't stick. In the meantime, she better find a better answer to the illegal immigration question, and quick.

Barack Obama did not score any knockout punches tonight, but he did well enough to stave off being written off by the media. He started off weak, but gained steam as the debate progressed. He was better able to find an effective balance between drawing contrasts with Hillary Clinton without drawing the ire of voters for engaging in slash-and-burn politics. He did not turn in the strongest performance, but he at least showed that he knows how to fight while being a bit genteel in the process.

John Edwards turned in a considerably strong performance and is more of a threat to Barack Obama than Hillary Clinton simply because he is more direct and more forceful in his contrasts. He damaged Clinton while hurting Obama at the same time because he demonstrated the scrappiness that Obama's supporters wish he had.

Joe Biden could legitimately become the Clinton alternative for voters seeking experience. His views on Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan demonstrated a level of depth and seriousness that has not been shown by any other candidate of either party thus far. There shouldn't be anymore talk about him becoming her Secretary of State.

Bill Richardson has gone from the most attractive second tier candidate to the least attractive over the course of these debates. Expect him to have to bat down stories about shooting for a cabinet position in a Clinton White House from here on out. His already slim chances of winning the nomination took a major hit tonight.

Chris Dodd has arrived, and I think Democrats like what they see.

Dennis Kucinich offers more in these debates than Mike Gravel, but look for him to be the next candidate to be dropped from the list of participants despite the fact that he has a clear campaign platform. Unfortunately, it's never a good sign when your most memorable line is that you saw a UFO. Obviously, that question from the moderators was not really fair, but most voters will only remember what Kucinich said.

This race just got a whole lot more interesting.

A more detailed analysis will follow shortly.

10/29/2007

Before the Pennsylvania Debate (D)

All the Democratic candidates (sans Mike Gravel) will participate in their next debate tomorrow evening at 9:00 in Philadelphia. The debate will be broadcast on MSNBC and will be co-moderated by Brian Williams and Tim Russert. Brian Williams moderated the very first debate held in Orangeburg, South Carolina, so this debate serves as a bit of a homecoming of sorts.

The link I just provided was to the debate preview I had written in April in which I assessed each candidate's positioning, rivals, weaknesses, and ways they could make their path to the nomination a bit less bumpy. That was six months ago, and it is now the end of October. We are no longer in the preseason, as the Iowa caucuses are set for January 3, which is in just a little over two months. The race has taken on numerous storylines since this spring and several facts have been learned. Here's where things stand now:

1. Iraq's importance to Democratic voters is not as important as the media and pundits are making it out to be. This is not to say that Iraq is not a big deal because it obviously is. But think about this. Barack Obama has stated numerous times how "he was against this war from the very beginning." Voters also know that John Edwards has apologized for his war vote and said he was "wrong." And Democratic voters know that Hillary Clinton refuses to apologize for the war she voted to authorize. She also won't make any guarantees about withdrawing troops by a certain date even though timetables for withdrawal are considerably more popular among Democrats than Republicans. So in some regards, Clinton's Iraq policy sounds like a continuation of Bush's Iraq policy. And yet, Hillary Clinton's support in the polls among Democratic voters continues to rise. But if Iraq were such a dealbreaker among Democrats, then shouldn't Obama be performing better than he is now? Or should we expect a surprisingly strong showing of support for Dennis Kucinich come caucustime?

2. Barack Obama has tapped into something very real, but his reluctance to firmly engage Hillary Clinton is blunting the potential strength of the movement he is trying to represent. Until the third quarter, Obama was leading the money chase and had the most donors. After the third quarter fundraising totals showed that Clinton had raised the most money, Obama appealed to his donors for them to help him "close the gap" with Clinton. His success in this endeavor shows that his support is deep and that his supporters are collectively powerful. But the fact that Obama is not able to "close the gap" in terms of polling against Clinton has to be discouraging for even his most ardent supporters. It's no longer enough for him to say "it's still early" because it's not. Obama continues to talk about how he'll be more aggressive, but it never comes. And when it does, it's often in the form of veiled attacks on Clinton that might be a bit too cerebral for the average voter to pick up on. He's running out of opportunities to draw blood and risks having his supporters quietly defect to other campaigns. Right now, Obama is not coming across like a fighter. How can voters fight for their candidate at the caucuses when that candidate is barely willing to fight for himself?

3. Talk about lobbyists and corruption seem to make good talking points, but they are a bit less successful at moving the needle. Or is it the messenger? Consider John Edwards, who is running an unabashedly populist campaign. Edwards' numbers are slowly declining in Iowa and South Carolina, both of which are states where he should reasonably be expected to do well. He has been the most aggressive candidate in the debates and is not hesitating to attack Clinton and her corporate ties. Anyone who watches Lou Dobbs knows that corruption, lobbying, and broken government are galvanizing issues. And Edwards is railing against these very issues. So what gives? He is an attractive Southern politician who connects with rural voters. His electability argument has some resonance as well, as his geography could potentially put some red states in play to counter Rudy Giuliani's assertion that he could put some blue states in play. And yet, he is falling off the pace. Do the haircut and hedge fund stories make him a hypocrite who has no credibility? Or is he regarded as a has-been because of his failed candidacy in 2004?

4. None of the second-tier candidates has emerged as the primary challenger to the comparatively less experienced Barack Clintedwards. Bill Richardson has the better fundraising and polling, while Joe Biden has the more credible Iraq message and more endorsements. Richardson and Biden are mired in the 5-10% range in most polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Just like Obama and Edwards, these two candidates cannot coexist because they both appeal to voters who desire an experienced candidate not named Hillary Clinton. If one of these candidates drops out, the other would clearly benefit and have a much easier road to gaining visibility. The newly open Senate seat in New Mexico is a tempting destination for Richardson, but he has expressed no interest in it (yet). And Biden's poor fundraising is not putting an end to doubts about his viability. Who will outlive who? Will it not be a Senate seat or fundraising prowess, but rather Iraq that delivers the knockout punch to one of these candidates? What do defections like this portend?

5. Nobody still knows who Chris Dodd is. His politics put him squarely in the Democratic mainstream. He has an impressive resume and a likable personality, but his polling is as anemic as Mike Gravel's. He has failed to distinguish himself in the debates and is not a particularly compelling speaker. This could work to Dodd's advantage in that voters may tire of all the warts of Barack Clintedwards and be leery of Richardson's and Biden's tendency to have their mouths get away from them. This would leave Dodd as the untainted statesman. But it would certainly help his case if Dodd had at least some favorable buzz about his campaign because how comfortable will Democratic voters be with entrusting their hopes to Mr. Invisible?

Stay tuned for my post-debate analysis.

10/09/2007

Michigan Debate Analysis (R)

The Republican presidential candidates participated in a debate that focused primarily on economic issues this afternoon in Dearborn, Michigan. The debate was co-moderated by MSNBC's Chris Matthews and CNBC's Maria Bartiromo. Matthews has found himself at the center of a controversy because of remarks he recently made at the Hardball 10th anniversary celebration. (You can read more about the remarks here.) In short, Matthews made some comments about the Bush Administration that suggested he was biased against Republicans and conservatives. Although attacking Matthews over this provided low hanging fruit for the Republican candidates, none of them took the bait and Matthews emerged unscathed.

This debate was long anticipated and scrutinized closely because it was the first time Fred Thompson was on the same stage as all the other candidates. One of the chief criticisms of his campaign is the sense that he has been evasive because of his long "testing the waters" period and his refusal to accept Mike Huckabee's invitation to one-on-one debates despite Thompson's earlier claim that he wanted to participate in smaller forums.

Another reason why this debate was unlike the others is because for the first time, the ghost of Newt Gingrich was no longer a presence. Since Gingrich had formally ruled out a presidential run, the already declared candidates didn't have to look over their shoulders anymore and fear a galvanizing figure with strong conservative credentials throwing his hat in the ring. The Democratic candidates can't quite yet say that about Al Gore, however, even though he is running out of time to jump in.

Here are my thoughts:

There are too many candidates in the race for these debates to be as useful as they possibly could be at this stage in the game. There were nine candidates on stage competing for talk time. People have often complained about the Democratic debates and how the no-shot candidates continue to be included. Future debate organizers should consider implementing a threshold for participation. This threshold could be based on polling, fundraising, campaign organization, or some other factor that reasonably assesses a candidate's credibility and/or viability. Until the number of participants in these debates is reduced, it will be much more difficult for the credible candidates to engage each other in a meaningful exchange of ideas. As a result, this will serve to the advantage of Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney because it will be harder for the middle-of-the-pack candidates to distinguish themselves.

Duncan Hunter, Sam Brownback, and maybe Tom Tancredo should seriously reconsider their campaigns. Sam Brownback was one of the clear losers in the Ames straw poll back in August. Even worse, the candidate he lost to was Mike Huckabee, who occupies the same political niche that Brownback is trying to fill. After that straw poll (and his consistently strong debate performances), Huckabee has eclipsed Brownback in opinion polls while Brownback has remained stagnant. There's not enough room in the race for two consistent social and religious conservatives. Huckabee has earned that mantle. As for Duncan Hunter, he has the same problem with Tom Tancredo that Brownback has with Huckabee. Tancredo is polling somewhat better than Hunter and is the more compelling speaker. Both candidates are vying for the role of the anti-illegal immigration, tough on national security hardliner. To this date, Tancredo has gained a fair bit of traction while Hunter has not.

Fred Thompson performed adequately, but he did not perform well enough to squash the budding caricature of him as a bumbler who is not quite ready for prime time. Thompson's delivery was halting and uneven at times as he had a tendency to meander. The substance of what he was saying should generally placate conservatives, but at times he seemed not to know when he should finish his answers and stop talking. This led to instances of Thompson talking a lot, but saying a little. This is something he should work on before his mouth gets away from him and he says something he regrets. For example, consider his meandering response to the question about the threat of a weak dollar.

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani may want to focus on Hillary Clinton, but they do so at their own peril. Both of these candidates are the co-leaders of the Republican presidential pack. Giuliani is the national frontrunner while Romney is the early primary state frontrunner (thanks to his strong support in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada). Are they both focusing on Hillary Clinton to gin up the base while drawing the spotlight away from their own warts? Is Giuliani still worried about his moderate to liberal stances on social issues? Is Romney still concerned that conservatives aren't buying his "conversion" to conservatism? Will ranting about "Hillary," "Hillarycare," and "the Clintons" be enough to make conservatives hold their noses while they vote in the primaries for the obviously not conservative Giuliani or the suspicious Romney?

Rudy Giuliani would be wise to evoke September 11 a bit more prudently. Giuliani has been criticized a lot recently for tying so many of his behaviors and policies to these terrorist attacks. He even went so far as to attribute his taking a call on his cell phone from his wife in the middle of a speech to the NRA to September 11. Ron Paul was making a firm point about the war in Iraq and the potential war with Iran and said that there has never been an imminent attack on the United States in 220 years. Giuliani then reminded him of September 11. Paul defended himself by saying the terrorists were "19 thugs instead of a country," but Giuliani asserted that "there were operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan" and that "we could have launched a strike that would have disrupted their operations." (These are not direct quotations.) Anyway, Giuliani's responses seem okay on the surface and would likely appeal to voters who generally do not dig a bit deeper. However, in this exchange with Ron Paul, how could a terrorist strike in Pakistan have stopped the September 11 attacks if the hijackers were all in the United States by the time these attacks became "imminent?" Will a candidate begin to poke holes in Giuliani's 9-11 mantra in the future and diminish his executive/national security image? The openings are definitely there.

Ron Paul must be taken seriously as a spoiler candidate. Paul's fundraising for the third quarter has been particularly impressive. However, because he continues to languish in the polls, it is difficult to gauge exactly where his support is coming from. Barry Goldwater conservatives who have a more libertarian view of social issues may find some resonance with Paul. The same could be said for Grover Norquist anti-tax conservatives. Ditto for anti-war liberals who like his clarity on the unconstitutionality of the war in Iraq. Younger voters who are less likely to have the same hangups that older voters have regarding issues like homosexuality and gay marriage may be more intrigued by his libertarian message as well. Paul received several rounds of sustained applause after some of his responses in this debate as well as earlier ones. The candidates most threatened by a Paul ascendancy are John McCain and Barack Obama. Iowan Republicans are a bit too socially conservative as a whole for Paul to crack, but all bets are off in New Hampshire, whose motto is "Live free or die." Because independents can participate in the New Hampshire primaries, Paul could draw independent Republicans from Obama and independent Democrats from the maverick John McCain who has traditionally attracted significant independent support. The purity, thoughtfulness, and consistency of his arguments have helped his rise from political obsolescence to annoying gadfly to a voice of logic and reason that many other candidates seem not to want to hear.

John McCain seems to be more of a national security candidate than an economic issues candidate. McCain's strong performance at the last debate in New Hampshire led to a flurry of stories about "McCain's revival." I highly doubt those stories will continue based on his performance at today's debate. McCain spoke with far less conviction when he was talking about corporate issues than he does when he talks about terrorism and Iraq. Aside from criticizing pork and wasteful government spending, McCain did not seem particularly passionate about discussing corporate profits, free trade, and labor unions.

Mitt Romney's gaffe about seeking attorneys' guidance before attacking Iran will come back to haunt him. Romney already has to deal with the caricature of being just a little too slick. A slick candidate making a gaffe about slick lawyers regarding the decidedly unslick issue of national security is problematic. And worse of all, Republicans want strong executive leadership. If a Democrat had said the president had to consult attorneys before making such critical national security decisions, he would have been absolutely pummeled by the Republicans. How will Giuliani and the other candidates exploit this misstep? It definitely undercuts his image as an executive, that's for sure.

There was a lot of sloganeering and cheerleading at the debate which came at the expense of fleshing out actual policy discussions. When the candidates were asked what the greatest threat was to the United States' economic prosperity was, several of them cited "a lack of optimism." Pep talks about "no more doom and gloom" and "being the greatest nation on Earth" may make voters feel good, but they don't address the actual threats to our nation's economic security that can be addressed by policy, such as the deficit, trade imbalances, energy independence, China, the defense budget, or taxes. It reminds me of religious conservative politicians who believe prayer is the best antidote to many of society's ills while government assistance, educational opportunities, economic development, and community involvement often go unmentioned. There's obviously nothing wrong with prayer, but anybody can pray. However, only politicians and lawmakers have access to the levers of power that control the tangible resources that can actually make a difference.

Mike Huckabee is very, very dangerous. I've written about Huckabee's potential as early as the second Republican debate back in May. I've studied Huckabee's comments in all the debates so far and he seems to be a much more credible, thoughtful conservative than either Romney or Thompson. He is also able to make references to Southern and rural culture that sound natural, rather than forced. For example, Huckabee made a simple analogy about NASCAR and taxes or some other economic policy. ("In NASCAR, when you pull into the pit stop, you get what you need and you get it fast.") This is a perfect example of breaking down political double talk into plain ol' English. He even managed to casually work in a reference to "Goober and Gomer" for good measure! While Giuliani and Romney train their guns on each other and on Hillary Clinton, they had better be careful that Huckabee doesn't snatch the nomination from them. During the post-debate show Huckabee said, "If A takes care of B, then C will be the nominee." This could be prophetic. The problem Huckabee poses for Romney and Giuliani is that they cannot attack his conservative credentials. It's no secret that conservatives are conflicted about Romney, Giuliani, and even Fred Thompson. But Huckabee is a much better ideological fit for them and he can talk about his conservatism much more credibly. He is a better speaker than Thompson and can match Romney and Giuliani in terms of executive experience. Huckabee has been clawing his way through the pack on a shoestring budget and is finally getting some fairly steady press coverage. Consider the recent Des Moines Register Poll showing Huckabee in third in Iowa ahead of Giuliani. Simply put, Mike Huckabee is real. This candidate is a much more serious threat to the Democrats in general than Rudy Giuliani is.

10/01/2007

Thoughts on the Republican Black Forum

Last week most of the Republican presidential candidates attended a forum moderated by Tavis Smiley at Morgan State University in Baltimore. The Democrats had attended a similar forum earlier this year. This debate was unique in that none of the four leading Republicans attended, with each citing "scheduling conflicts." Four empty podiums stood on stage in their (dis)honor. Much has been written about the absences of Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and John McCain, so this post won't go into that. Instead, I'd like to focus a bit more on what I observed from the candidates who actually did participate.

Before going any further, I want to commend Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, and newcomer Alan Keyes for at least giving the forum a chance and attempting to deliver their message to a potentially hostile crowd. It is no secret that Blacks tend to vote Democratic by about an 8 to 1 ratio. Defenders of the absent candidates often cite this statistic before saying "Blacks would never vote for us anyway, so why bother?"

Yes, that may be the easy way to rationalize blowing off the most politically powerful minority voting bloc in America, but here's why that line of thinking is wrong. Republicans seem to think that they have to "win" the Black vote, as in win a majority of the Black vote. But let's get real. That's not going to happen for many, many years. A Republican doesn't have to "win" the Black vote in order to win more elections; they often only have to "do better" with the Black vote in order to tip more elections in their favor. Winning 25% of the Black vote may be enough to win a close race, while winning only the usual 15% will keep you practicing your concession speeches. And this is what a lot of Republicans seem to overlook. But then again, maybe the candidates and strategists who use this "we'll never 'win' the Black vote" line simply don't want to try and maybe don't even care. Black voters pick up on rhetoric like this just as much as they pick up on the candidates who shun them, as the four leading candidates did.

People talk about Rudy Giuliani's appeal to moderates, Fred Thompson's appeal to Southerners, and Mitt Romney's appeal to evangelicals. However, you don't hear much about a candidate's appeal to Blacks, at least on the Republican side of the field. The Democratic Party does not have a monopoly on Blacks' votes at all, as many Blacks feel the Democrats take their votes for granted. So there's a huge opportunity here for a Republican who is willing to do a bit of work first.

Anyway, as I watched the debate, I made a few observations. Even though I may criticize these candidates, the fact that they at least showed up makes me have far more respect for them than the candidates with the "scheduling conflicts." Anyway, here are my thoughts:

1. Duncan Hunter kept using the word barrio, which is the Spanish equivalent of "the hood" or "the ghetto." I think Hunter was trying to show that he had some knowledge of "the lingo" used in "minority" communities. I'll give him credit for that. But at the same time, it seemed like he was either trying too hard or was genuinely clueless about which word he should use to describe "where minorities live." How would a roomful of Southerners feel if someone like John Kerry said "Howdy!" with a New York accent? Why should it be any different here? I think a smarter choice for Hunter would have simply been "Black communities" or "Black neighborhoods" or even "lower income neighborhoods." There's no need to get all fancy with the terminology. Don't be so afraid of being politically correct. Just talk! Hunter's awkward remarks illustrate the trepidation that exists among many Republicans who sincerely would like to extend an olive branch to Black voters, but really aren't sure how to go about doing so.

2. If the Alan Keyes of 2007 is the same as the Alan Keyes of 2004, then that explains why Barack Obama may not be sufficiently versed in the lore of national politics. Keyes was Obama's opponent in the 2004 Illinois Senate race. I listened to Keyes during the debate last week and tried to maintain an open mind. While he spoke with great force and passion, I could see how he'd register as an asterisk in most polls. In other words, Alan Keyes was and is a very weak candidate. For example, at the start of the debate Keyes said that the absence of the four main Republican candidates was not necessarily an affront to the Black community. I'm sure that went over well with the audience. Anyway, the point is, has Obama truly been tested on the national stage? I'm not talking about voting records, daily news cycles, and fundraising. I'm talking about running a strong campaign against a strong challenger for a federal office. Running up the score against someone like Alan Keyes does not count.

3. Blacks have more in common with religious conservatives than at first glance. Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback won lots of applause from the crowd when they talked about the importance of strong families and traditional values. So many Blacks grew up in one-parent homes or homes where both parents spend so little time at home with their children because of work. Time spent away from the home is time spent away from their children, who then have more time to get mixed up with the wrong crowd. Black voters get this.

4. Libertarianism has some degree of palatability among Blacks when it is phrased in a way that shows its relevance to the Black community. Ron Paul consistently received cheers and strong applause after almost every time he took the microphone. His libertarian stance regarding the "War on Drugs" clearly resonated with many of the voters in the audience. The way he was able to tie in government inefficiency, the failure of this endeavor, and how it disproportionately affects Blacks was a masterstroke that demonstrated a high degree of familiarity with this issue beyond the usual "let's build more prisons" or "let's bolster enforcement" cliches.

5. Blacks are just as angry about illegal immigration as White Republicans are. Tom Tancredo illustrated how illegal aliens were driving down wages for everyone, including Blacks with blue collar jobs. Tancredo was not using illegal aliens (read Mexicans) as a convenient scapegoat, but the crux of his argument cannot be denied. Strains on government services and increased crime are not the only issues impacted by illegal aliens; how they take lower paying jobs and decrease wages affects lower income families particularly hard. Are Democrats on the wrong side of illegal immigration?

6. Don't ever judge a book by its cover. I do not have any official statistics regarding the attendance of the forum. However, when the camera panned to the audience, I noticed a lot of Whites in the seats. Even though this forum was primarily about "Black" issues, it seemed that about 25-35% of the people in the audience were White. And because this debate was on PBS (instead of BET), there were surely many more Whites watching the debate from their own homes. Republicans who were weak-kneed about entering the Black lions' den were probably pleasantly surprised that the crowd was not nearly as hostile as they may have anticipated. This just goes to show that political opportunity is everywhere if you're willing to take a chance.

7. There is a wing of the Republican Party that does not believe racism is an issue today. Tom Tancredo refused to go along with the other candidates who partially attributed issues of Black unemployment, Black imprisonment, and Black poverty to racism. Tancredo instead blamed failing schools, failing communities, and failing homes with poor values for the plight of so many Blacks. While his argument has some degree of credence, comments such as these cause Tancredo and his political brethren to represent the wing of the Republican Party that Blacks think of when they say "they don't care about us."

8. Mike Huckabee is probably the single most dangerous Republican candidate in the field. I cannot understand why people continue to talk about him only as vice presidential material. Huckabee is a talented speaker, is right on almost all the issues conservatives hold dear, and could attract increased support from Blacks and moderates because he does not come across as a hardcore partisan even though he is most definitely a part of the conservative religious right. Huckabee was able to deftly strike the right balance between acknowledging racism and showing how poor Blacks had a lot in common with poor Whites. His answer regarding the death penalty was very moving, as his thoughtfulness provided a nice contrast from capital punishment advocates who simply say "those people deserve to die for their heinous crimes." If I were a Democrat, I would be very, very afraid of this candidate because I think he could put more blue states in play than Giuliani could while keeping the red states red. In light of all the frustration among evangelical voters regarding their "top four" candidates, Romney and Thompson in particular should be very worried about Huckabee's potential strength.

To me, these eight lessons and observations provided far more news than the fact that the "leading" candidates were "unable" to attend. It will be interesting to see if any of these candidates try to follow up with Black voters by campaigning in their neighborhoods and churches in the future. Even though it may seem daunting at first, I think they'd be pleasantly surprised.

9/28/2007

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 MoveOn.org 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.

9/25/2007

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 Moveon.org 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.

9/06/2007

New Hampshire Debate Analysis (R)

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

Debate format

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway...

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

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

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

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

Not their best night...

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

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

Flying high, feeling good...

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

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

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

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

What now, Democrats?

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

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

What's up, Fred?

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

Must see TV! The exchange of the night!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final scorecard

John McCain has made himself relevant again.

Mike Huckabee should be taken seriously.

Ron Paul is not going away and continues to intrigue.

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

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

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

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

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

Duncan Hunter needs to pull a Tommy Thompson and leave.

8/19/2007

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.

8/07/2007

Debate Analysis (D)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a nutshell:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/25/2007

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)

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.