The Second Democratic Debate: My Reaction

The 8 declared Democratic presidential candidates participated in their second debate last night in New Hampshire. This debate seemed more substantive than the first debate in South Carolina about six weeks ago. While nobody made any fatal gaffes, I do believe some of the candidates have a bit more to worry about because they failed to meet higher expectations, failed to surpass lowered expectations, or simply ran in place when they needed to make a move.

Hillary Clinton: Clinton had a commanding performance in this debate and is probably even more difficult for the other frontrunners to catch. She sounded competent, resolute, and strong. She did an excellent job of conveying how the decisions a president makes cannot be reduced to mere hypotheticals that are almost always less complex than what a president actually has to deal with. She also stayed above the fray between Obama and Edwards by reminding voters that the important differences are between the Democrats and the Republicans, rather than among the Democrats themselves. There is no denying the fact that Clinton is a skilled, disciplined politician. She did not draw fire when unnecessary and did not open herself up to any devastating attacks. She should look for her poll numbers to solidify.

Barack Obama: Obama needs to be careful because I get the sense that the bloom is coming off of the rose that is his candidacy. He had a stronger performance in this debate than he did in South Carolina, but the lack of heft in his messages is becoming a bit too much to ignore. Edwards leveled a strong blow when comparing Obama to a "legislator" instead of a "leader," but Obama was able to quickly neutralize this attack by reminding Edwards of his war vote. To be fair, when Obama speaks, he often speaks in generalities much like other politicians do. However, Obama has to deal with the fact that he cannot afford to do this as much as the other candidates because it is perceived as one of his major weaknesses. Expectations have risen considerably for Obama, but I fear that he will not be able to meet them in the future. His polling performance seems to have peaked, as Clinton has been able to widen her lead. Is Obama '08 the same as Dean '04?

John Edwards: John Edwards did a good job in this debate and leveled a good blow on Obama. However, he was effectively countered by Obama's response that Edwards' leadership is "about four and a half years late." Edwards was forced to be gracious towards Obama a bit later in the debate because he knew Obama used a potent weapon against him. Having said that, Edwards sounded a bit more practical last night and benefited from not having to worry about questions about his own personal wealth, his haircut, and his estate. So nothing new fed into the developing caricatures of him as a rich kid who doesn't understand the Average Joe. Edwards knows what he has to do. Edwards and Obama are both in the same position as vying for being the Hillary alternative. However, Edwards was much more aggressive than Obama last night because he knows that this is the only way to gain ground. Obama tried hard to stay above the fray, but this approach is not going to prevent others from gaining ground on him. Edwards gets it. Look for him to be more aggressive towards Obama in the future. Does Edwards smell blood?

Bill Richardson: Bill Richardson's presentation was much better last night than in the first debate. He looked more relaxed and less "scowly." He gave a lot of pragmatic, thoughtful responses to the questions and went into more depth than the three frontrunners. However, he did not come across as energizing. This might play well in New Hampshire, where primary voters tend to do their homework, but Richardson might be toast in other states where voters are more swayed by one's charisma or presentation. His suggestion that the US boycott the 2008 Olympic Games was memorable and he did a great job of defending this position. However, he still did not draw blood on any of the frontrunners, and thus did not break into the top tier.

Joe Biden: Joe Biden has had two solid debate performances in a row now. He is obviously competent, experienced, thoughtful, and passionate. He also came across as a pragmatist regarding ending the war in Iraq and funding the troops. His civics lesson about how 67 Senate votes are required to override a veto and how this war won't end unless there's a Democrat in the White House may have opened a few eyes as well. If his fundraising can improve, he could overtake Richardson as the candidate most likely to enter the top tier. Even though they both are often saying the same things, Biden's delivery is much more compelling.

Chris Dodd: Chris Dodd was really hamstrung during the debate. He did not receive a lot of questions, had very little talk time, and kinda got lost in the shuffle again. When he did speak, he did so confidently and competently. But he's not in the position to not go on offense. He's trying to go on offense in his television ads, but he failed to do so in the debate. The fact that Connecticut is close to New Hampshire gives Dodd an opening for a surprise, but until he can improve his name recognition and give voters a reason to pay attention to him, look for Dodd to continue to run at the back of the pack.

Dennis Kucinich: Kucinich got a lot more talk time than his poll standings would suggest he warrants, so he should have no complaints about that. Iraq is clearly his main issue, but exactly how many voters are willing to vote for Kucinich just because of Iraq? That remains to be seen, but he did make a good point about how borrowing money from China to fight in Iraq is much more of a threat to our security than withdrawing our troops. Right now, Kucinich is not viewed as credible. Until voters take him seriously as a candidate, his message, no matter how well thought out it may be, will not be heeded.

Mike Gravel: Gravel was more subdued last night and lobbed fewer grenades. He generated some buzz after his first performance, but I think he did not help his momentum last night. He's clearly a gadfly candidate with no credibility. Look for other debate hosts to exclude him in the future because the signal to noise ratio in his responses is too high to make his participation worth it.

The bottom line:

Hillary Clinton is in position to run away from the pack and make this a blowout. Perhaps she'll be more difficult for the Republicans to beat than they think?

Barack Obama can't afford to cruise anymore. His airplane is losing altitude and Edwards is gaining on him. Could Obama be seen more as vice presidential?

John Edwards should receive a nice bump from his performance last night. He regained a bit of momentum and may siphon off a few of Obama's supporters.

Bill Richardson should hope that voters pay more attention to what he says, rather than how he says it. He is clearly a problem solver and a critical thinker, but he is not a compelling speaker. He missed a chance to break out. Look for him to remain in the second tier.

Joe Biden cannot be ignored. He knows he's running towards the back of the pack, but he has nowhere to go but up. After two solid performances in a row, I believe his candidacy will be viewed more credibly. Look for an uptick in his momentum.

Dennis Kucinich may have raised a few good points, but look for his influence to be mainly in the form of getting voters to ask other more credible candidates their positions on the issues he raises.

Mike Gravel is comedy relief, but I think his 15 minutes of fame are over. His presence is annoying to the other candidates and the voters because he takes up time that the other more credible candidates can use to flesh out their positions.

The moderator, Wolf Blitzer of CNN, did a good job of leading the debate, although the hypothetical questions he asked were counterproductive. He should also ensure in the future that the candidates be given equal time to participate. Chris Dodd, and to a lesser extent, Bill Richardson, have legitimate gripes.

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1 comment(s):

Steve Johnson said...

You're right about Wolf Blitzer. It was kind of funny when all of the candidates jumped on him about that question on killing Osama bin Laden at the risk of killing innocent people. I like Wolf, but he definitely likes putting politicians in between a rock and a hard place. Given, all reporters do this, but he seems to take some kind of sadistic pleasure in doing it.

I agree with you on most of your assessment. You're absolutely right about Biden having a solid debate. I love seeing him get passionate and angry when it comes to issues like Iraq and Darfur. His passion definitely comes across better in those topics as opposed to when he's barking about shoving things down the president's throat.