With a wealth of good candidates – particularly on gay issues – many Democratic voters are still undecided going into the primaries. The only thing they are sure of is that they loathe President George W. Bush and none of the Republican contenders present themselves as viable options. One-time GOP moderates — like Mitt Romney, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani — are reinventing themselves as right wing conservatives who can't wait to appoint "strict constructionist judges." Even if one likes their policies on defense (I don't) the notion that they might stack the court with more Scalia-types is too frightening to countenance.
Hillary Clinton is the current frontrunner, but it is clear that her lead is tenuous and could evaporate with any serious missteps. At this week's Democratic debate, moderated by NBC's Tim Russert and Brian Williams, the challengers vigorously worked to dethrone her. Some made headway, but no one delivered a memorable blow to change the calculus of the race. Here is a snapshot on how the candidates performed in this crucial Democratic contest:
Hillary Clinton: She was targeted by nearly everyone on stage and portrayed as an untrustworthy, status quo candidate. However, she helped her case by coming across as the Timex candidate: She took a licking and kept on ticking.
However, at times Clinton did seem too packaged and at some point she needs to answer questions more directly. She also mentioned Bush way too many times, and that strategy grated on my nerves after the first hour. But, she did help herself in the general election – if she gets there — by talking tough on defense. This debate generally bolstered Clinton's campaign because she looked like a brawler — exactly what is needed against Republicans.
Barack Obama: While he began the debate comparing himself to Rocky, it is increasingly clear that this man has no clue how to throw a punch. First, he acted surprised by the hype surrounding the debate – even though he is the one who hyped it in the New York Times, signaling that he would aggressively challenge the frontrunner. However, he looked unsure of himself, terribly uncomfortable with political combat and withered under Clinton's piercing glare. He got better as the debate went on — but delivered no decisive blows. The only thing rocky was his tepid performance in a crucial debate.
Indeed, Obama still seemed to be reeling from his gospel gaffe, where he lacked the leadership to dump outspoken "ex-gay" singer Donnie McClurkin from a campaign gospel tour in South Carolina. Obama is a very talented politician who will learn and grow from these experiences. One day he will be president — just not in 2008.
John Edwards: Edwards effectively played the attack dog role that Obama should have embraced. Still in the hunt, Edwards drew distinct differences with Clinton and sharp contrasts. He will do better than people think and may sneak up on Clinton if she keeps equivocating. Edwards made it clear with his assault on Clinton's record that he is playing for keeps, believes he can make a difference and is not looking for a shot at a Vice Presidential nomination.
Dennis Kucinich: On the same day he questioned President Bush's mental health, he admits to seeing a UFO. Note to Kucinich: Americans say they want our politicians to be honest — they don't really mean it. E.T. has a better chance of winning the presidency. But, thanks for adding entertainment value to the debate! Who said politics can't be fun?
Christopher Dodd: When your campaign is up in smoke, why not endorse decriminalizing pot? Hey, at least its not UFO's! But, just think what a party joint appearances with foreign leaders might be? It is a shame that in America we cannot have a reasonable debate on drug policy – but after all, we are the country that reelected Bush. On the plus side, if he wins the pothead vote, he's way ahead of where he was before this debate. And, truth be told, he handled himself quite well and looked presidential.
Bill Richardson: For some reason, when Richardson discusses his thick resume, it seems like he is boasting. Instead of being impressed with his accomplishments, I find myself wondering how a guy that seems so disheveled got so far in life. With his campaign in shambles, he auditioned for the vice presidency, lecturing the other candidates to tone down their attacks on Clinton. He probably scored some points with her and kept his political career alive.
Joseph Biden: Like Richardson, he auditioned for the vice presidency by ruthlessly attacking Giuliani and calling him unqualified. Quite frankly, he was an effective hatchet man and performed well in the debate.
If anything, this debate will get Democrats in the fighting spirit they need to take on the Republicans. The country desperately needs a new direction and having nominees from both parties taking the spotlight further off lame duck Bush will lead to a much-needed discussion on the direction we want to take our country.