Dan Balz's Take
Final Debate Changes Little, Though Earlier Ones Changed Obama
By Dan Balz
CLEVELAND -- Two things were clear from Tuesday's Democratic debate here in Cleveland: Barack Obama is a much improved debater from what he was when he began his presidential campaign, and Hillary Clinton did not do what she needed to do to change the shape of the Democratic race.
The two are obviously related and they help illuminate why the Clinton-Obama contest has reached the point it has, with Clinton struggling to avoid an outcome next Tuesday that would put pressure on her to leave the race.
Scroll back 10 months to the first Democratic debate in South Carolina, a session that helped to create, justifiably, the idea that Clinton was the class of the field. In that debate, Clinton appeared in command and Obama looked tentative. That long-ago debate underscored the depth and breadth of the Democratic field but also showed Clinton's policy knowledge and political confidence. It was one of the factors contributing to assessments that described her as a far better candidate than many had expected.
On Tuesday night, Clinton and Obama were far more evenly matched, as they have been in all of three of their two-person debates. If anything, Clinton appeared to be trying too hard -- too anxious to score points, and talking at length during the opening exchange over health care. Her demeanor in the opening minutes suggested she was perturbed that, on the signature issue of her campaign, she was not automatically judged to have the superior plan for achieving universal health care.
Her exasperation surfaced not long after when she voiced objections to NBC's Brian Williams and Tim Russert over always being tossed the opening -- and presumably embarrassing -- question. Whether that is always the case is debatable -- a USA Today analysis suggests that Clinton is correct on this point when it comes to the most recent debate openers -- but, on Tuesday night, she was put on the defensive from the start with video of her being nice to Obama and then excoriating him over a campaign flier on health care.
When, a few minutes later, she was asked to go first to explain why she has changed positions on NAFTA, she could not restrain herself. "Could I just point out that, in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time? And I don't mind. You know, I'll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious. And if anybody saw 'Saturday Night Live,' you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow."
That was the sound of a candidate under stress, and while the moment passed quickly -- viewers who had not seen "Saturday Night Live" must have been bewildered by what she was talking about -- it underscored the reality that she has had more trouble recently striking the right balance, whether on the campaign trail or in the debates.
Obama started out his campaign with an aversion to debates. He had not found them to his liking when he ran for the Senate against Republican Alan Keyes in 2004 and, even after the first several debates of this campaign, he was still uneasy with his performance.
When I interviewed him last August, he openly acknowledged that he did not do well with debates with seven other candidates and with rules that limited answers to 60 seconds or 90 seconds. "There's no doubt that the 60-second format debates, or even 90-second, are tough for me," he said.
Obama said something that, as I look back on it, explains why he has appeared more comfortable and effective as a debater the longer the campaign has gone one. Not only has he become more confident in his own skills, the two-person setting plays to what he believes are his own strengths.
"I think that having a different format would benefit me," he said in that August interview. "There's no doubt that if we had more of a conversation, or we had a roundtable and it was a little more open ended and maybe we structured it so that it focused on one topic, [it] would play to my strengths. And there's no doubt that the sort of sound-bite debate style -- some candidates have mastered that art more than I have."
Clinton is still playing sound-bite debate politics, looking for the line that will be replayed and replayed and replayed. But when she tried it in Austin with her "change you can Xerox" dig at Obama for taking words from Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, it landed with a thud -- and produced some boos from the Austin audience. Her "Saturday Night Live" line on Tuesday was of the same order, with results not much better.
She remains an effective advocate in debate -- still knowledgeable to the point of wonkishness -- and Obama was not error-free on Tuesday. He still is waffling on his earlier pledge to take public funds in a general election campaign. He did not seem entirely comfortable with questions about either Louis Farrakhan or his own minister's views. He talked around a question about Dmitry Medvedev, who is in line to replace Russian President Vladimir Putin, and may have been lucky that it was Clinton who was first asked if she knew his name. She did, but had trouble pronouncing it.
But in most cases, Obama showed what he has learned from a year of standing or sitting opposite Clinton in these debates. One example came on Iraq, a subject the two have tangled on since the start of the campaign.
Clinton gave him credit for having spoken out against the war in 2002 but pressed him on why their voting records were virtually identical since he had come to the Senate. "The fair comparison is when we both had responsibility," she said. "When it wasn't just a speech, but it was actually action, where is the difference? Where is the comparison that would, in some way, give a real credibility to the speech that he gave against the war?"
Obama countered. "The fact was this was a big strategic blunder," he said. "It was not a matter of, 'Well, here is the initial decision, but since then we've voted the same way.' Once we had driven the bus into the ditch, there were only so many ways we could get out. The question is: Who's making the decision initially to drive the bus into the ditch?"
He continued: "And the fact is that Senator Clinton often says that she is ready on day one, but, in fact, she was ready to give in to George Bush on day one on this critical issue. So the same person that she criticizes for having terrible judgment -- and we can't afford to have another one of those -- in fact, she facilitated and enabled this individual to make a decision that has been strategically damaging to the United States of America."
Clinton began this campaign as the more effective debater, but as in other aspects of the campaign, Obama has closed the gap. She must now try to win Ohio and Texas the old-fashioned way, with effective campaigning, a strong message and a ground operation that has been shaky in some previous states.
Here in Ohio, that amounts to adopting the strategy of Woody Hayes, the legendary Ohio State football coach: three yards and a cloud of dust. It isn't glamorous but it may be all she has left.
Posted at 2:08 PM ET on Feb 27, 2008
Dan Balz's Take
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