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Seven Things We Learned
From the Democratic Debate

The view from Chicago's Soldier Field, where Democratic candidates sparred in front of a 15,000-strong crowd of union members and their families. (AP).

The lesson from Tuesday's Democratic debate in Chicago is plain: if you put the candidates on a football field, you should expect some contact.

Soldier Field on a sweltering evening proved a worthy host for the latest in the endless summer series of Democratic forums. With 15,000 union members and their families packed into the end zone seats, there was no likelihood that the AFL-CIO-sponsored debate would be a sedate affair.

But what did we learn from the 90 minutes of political jousting?

First, Hillary Clinton knows how to play the gender card. Not that she hasn't done that before. She plays it effectively in front of female audiences, but she seems to have a special talent for employing it in front of testosterone-filled audiences of laborites.

She delivered the sound bite of the night, one that captured all the qualities she thinks make her the Democrats' best choice in 2008: toughness, self-confidence and femininity. "For 15 years, I have stood up against the right-wing machine and I've come out stronger," she said. "So if you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I'm your girl."

Not "I'm your candidate" or "I'm the Democrat you're looking for? Instead, "I'm your girl." The line recalled her humorous throw-away line earlier this year when, acknowledging a very warm reception at the firefighters union convention in Washington, she said, "Thank you, thanks so much -- and thanks for last night too." The mostly male audience of first responders couldn't believe what they were hearing.

For the record, Clinton was acknowledging the firefighters' reception the previous evening.

Second, Barack Obama showed his mettle. The other candidates see an opening from Obama's foreign policy pronouncements of the past two weeks. Clinton jumped him two weeks ago over his willingness to meet with leaders of hostile nations during his first year as president, without preconditions.

Clinton and other rivals have seized on comments he made last week about going after terrorists inside Pakistan, if President Pervez Musharraf proves unwilling to act decisively. Chris Dodd took the lead Tuesday night when the subject came up, calling Obama "highly irresponsible" for telegraphing military action that might destabilize the Musharraf regime.

"I think it was wrong to say what he did in that matter," Dodd said.

Obama obviously knew the attacks were coming and seemed not the least bit flustered by them. He is not a natural debater but he certainly does not lack for self-confidence. He believes he is correct on the policy he has enunciated and has a ready-made counterattack: that his critics are the same people that helped get the country into the war in Iraq.

Obama may appear inexperienced to some members of the foreign policy elite, but that wasn't his audience on Tuesday. "We're debating the most important foreign policy issues that we face, and the American people have the right to know. It is not just Washington insiders that are part of the debate that has to take place with respect to how
we're going to shift our foreign policy."

Third, John Edwards is fast becoming the Howard Dean of this race. That's been apparent almost from the start of the year, but with each week it is more obvious. He has toughened his rhetoric and has sought to turn himself into the outsider candidate determined not just to battle for the nomination but to make reforming the Democratic Party a part of his message. All were elements of Dean's campaign four years ago.

Edwards knows his campaign needs a boost - and soon. Clinton has opened up a big lead in the national polls, and Edwards has fallen far back into third place. His campaign in Iowa still has a solid base of support but there is no evidence that he has expanded beyond what he had four years ago, if that. Laborites say he is pressing friendly unions for early endorsements, arguing that he needs their help now, not later.

All of that was on display last night, with Edwards denouncing corporate lobbyists for writing trade treaties that he said hurt workers; challenging Clinton for taking contributions from corporate lobbyists; and claiming he has done more to advance labor's interests in recent years than any of the other candidates.

With Dean's former campaign manager, Joe Trippi, now embedded as one of the most important strategists in his campaign, and with a pair of leaders from the anti-Wal-Mart campaign on board, Edwards has made a strategic decision to try to shake up the race by challenging Clinton and Obama at the same time.

Fourth, Joe Biden is getting tired of listening to John Edwards. When Edwards talked about all he has done for labor in the past two years, walking picket lines, campaigning for minimum wage initiatives in the states, developing policies to address labor's agenda, Biden responded in words dripping with contempt.

"The question is, did you walk when it cost?" he said. "Did you walk when you were from a state that is not a labor state? Did you walk when the corporations in your state were opposed to you? That's the measure of whether we'll be with you when it's tough, not when you're running for president in the last two years, marching on 20 or 30 or 50 picket lines."

Fifth, Dennis Kucinich had a good night. Nobody on the stage offered more of what labor wanted than Kucinich, the most liberal candidate in the field and the one with absolutely nothing to lose. He was the only one to tell the labor audience what most of them wanted to hear, that he would scrap the NAFTA treaty.

All the other candidates hedged - wringing their hands over what trade treaties have wrought, but stopping well short of promising to abrogate the treaty.

Kucinich enjoyed himself and the audience gave him a great response.

Sixth, Bill Richardson did not have a particularly bad night but got lost in the barrages among the other candidates. He is still looking for a memorable debate performance.

Seventh, nobody missed Mike Gravel. The former Alaska senator has become the scourge of the Democratic field. When he failed to fill out a questionnaire requested by the AFL-CIO, the union officials said he couldn't participate. Having one fewer candidate on stage helped everyone.

By Bill Hamilton  |  August 8, 2007; 12:08 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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