Dan Balz's Take
Spoiling for a Fight
Barack Obama was the story heading into the Democratic debate in Philadelphia two weeks ago. Would he take on Hillary Clinton or not? Coming out of the debate, the spotlight was on Hillary Clinton and her poor performance.
As Democrats prepare for Thursday night's debate in Las Vegas, the focus is still on Clinton. Can she recover and prove what happened in Philadelphia was an aberration -- or might there truly be a contest for the Democratic nomination once the curtain falls in Nevada?
Clinton's rough ride continued Wednesday when the campaigns of Obama, Chris Dodd and John Edwards attacked her for her latest statement on drivers licenses for illegal immigrants.
When New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer abandoned his plan to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses, Clinton -- who had earlier said she supported Spitzer's efforts to deal with the problem -- said as president that she would not supporting giving licenses to illegals.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton took a double shot at the Democratic frontrunner over that statement. "When it takes two weeks and six different positions to answer one question on immigration, it's easier to understand why the Clinton campaign would rather plant their questions than answer them," he said, rolling the immigrant controversy into an ongoing flap in Iowa.
Dodd spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan called the latest statement "flip-flopping cubed," while the Edwards campaign said simply, "We're dizzy."
Even Clinton has conceded that her Philadelphia debate performance was sub par, but rival strategists argue that it continued on a pattern of less-than-impressive debates over the past few months -- after delivering a succession of strong performances in early debates that helped establish her as a dominant front-runner for the nomination.
Joe Trippi, senior adviser in the Edwards campaign, said Wednesday that Clinton began to stumble at the YearlyKos debate last August in Chicago, when she refused Edwards's challenge to pledge not to take money from registered Washington lobbyists and even defended lobbyists in her answer.
At the Dartmouth debate in September, Clinton came under attack from Edwards for supporting a resolution on Iran that most of her rivals opposed. She also ran into turbulence over her position on Social Security, and some of the post-debate commentary challenged her for being evasive.
The result, in Trippi's estimation, is a different campaign than it was a month ago. "The landscape has totally changed since the last time," he said. "She entered the last one [debate] sort of the invincible, insurmountable, inevitable nominee and in the course of two or three weeks, she's a mere mortal. So in that point of view the terrain has changed."
Edwards believes he has set the pace in challenging Clinton and Trippi said that will continue in Las Vegas and beyond. "We're going to keep doing what we've been doing. We're going to make clear the clearest differences in the race is between Hillary Clinton and John Edwards -- her status quo and our populist campaign for change."
But Edwards has competition on that front from Obama, who arrives at the debate after an impressive speech at the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner last Saturday and several good days of campaigning there, in which he appeared to gained confidence as a candidate. His campaign is trying to capitalize on this financially and politically.
Obama and Edwards offer contrasting styles but they are allies in attempting to force Clinton into a real debate and thereby overtake her in Iowa and nationally. All the campaigns believe there is a tight race in Iowa and some polls elsewhere have shown Clinton's once-overwhelming lead shrinking a bit in the past couple of weeks.
Clinton's campaign appears ready for a rough night in Las Vegas. Asked what she expected, a senior campaign official said early Thursday, "Heavy attacks. I think both Obama and Edwards are coming loaded for bear." Asked whether she is ready to fire back, the official emailed not-so-cryptically, "Stay tuned."
The Clinton campaign has never shrunk from confrontation with her rivals and there's every reason to expect that she will approach this debate differently than she did the forum in Philadelphia. Preparation is her hallmark as a public official, and hardball politics the M.O. of her operation.
Clinton doubtless have plenty of material to undercut anyone who challengers her. But Clinton's double challenge is to counter attacks without appearing angry or defensive.
At this stage of the campaign, every debate becomes a potentially significant moment in the campaign. Until now, Clinton has attempted to stay above the fray, focusing her attacks on President Bush and the Republicans rather than her Democratic rivals. She may not have that luxury in Las Vegas.
On Saturday in Des Moines, the front-runner unveiled a new slogan -- "turn up the heat" -- and used it to exhort the Democratic audience to challenge Bush and the Republicans. But it may have been a warning to her Democratic rivals. Will tonight provide the occasion for her to turn up the heat on Obama and Edwards? And if she does, will the Democratic race look different on Friday than it does today?
Posted at 2:20 PM ET on Nov 15, 2007
Dan Balz's Take
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