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2nd Democratic Debate: Winners and Losers

BEDFORD, N.H. -- Twelve hours removed from the second Democratic presidential debate, we're back to offer our winners and losers from last night's event.

It goes without saying these evaluations are subjective. Agree or disagree with our take? Use the comment section to offer your own winners and losers.

WINNERS

Hillary Rodham Clinton: The New York Senator was placed at the center of the stage last night at Saint Anselm College, a fitting place for the role she played in the festivities. Clinton was in the middle of nearly every exchange and repeatedly sought to speak for the group. She cast the Democrats on the stage as united against a common opponent -- George W. Bush and the Republican Party. ("This is George Bush's war," she said. "He is responsible for this war.") That approach made Clinton look magnanimous and presidential. Put simply: Clinton is a pro. She is polished, smart and savvy -- all of which was on display last night.

Barack Obama: After a very uneven performance in the first Democratic debate, Obama bounced back nicely this time around. While the format (60 second answers) ill suits Obama's professorial approach to answering questions, he managed to squeeze in a few memorable lines. His retort to former Sen. John Edwards' (D-N.C) charge that he had followed rather than led on Iraq -- "You're about four and a half years late on leadership on this issue" -- was the line of the night. And, Obama's insistence that "when you've got a military target like bin Laden, you take him out" helped address any lingering sense from the first debate that he was not tough enough to lead. He wasn't perfect but he was much better.

Joe Biden: If your name isn't Clinton, Edwards or Obama, it's tough to break through in these debates. Biden has now done it twice in a row thanks to a willingness to insert himself into the back and forth on almost any issue. Biden cast himself as a pragmatic politician, refusing to make promises or pledges to voters that can't be kept. He dismissed criticism of Senate Democrats' action by noting they have the thinnest of majorities in that body, adding: "You're going to end this war when you elect a Democratic president." The question for Biden is what his strong performances in the debates mean. He trails the frontrunners -- and several of the second tier candidates -- badly in terms of fundraising, a trend that if it continues essentially renders his solid showings moot.

First hour of the debate: The first sixty minutes of the debate was -- to our mind -- the most compelling and informative period of any debate we have seen so far this cycle. The leading candidates aired their differences on Iraq and healthcare -- the two issues most of the voting public repeatedly identify as the top priorities for government to address. CNN's Wolf Blitzer handled the hour masterfully, pressing candidates when appropriate while also generally avoiding injecting himself into the debate.

LOSERS

Bill Richardson: No one in the field has a bigger (and more engaging) personality than the New Mexico governor. Unfortunately, for the second debate in a row he appeared uncomfortable and far too scripted. While Richardson is smart to make sure viewers know he is the only executive in a field of legislators, his constant references to his current job came across as decidedly heavy handed. Richardson seems the candidate in the second tier best positioned to challenge the Big 3 but his performances in the first two debates feel like missed opportunities.

Chris Dodd: Roughly three-quarters of the way through the debate, Dodd's campaign sent out a missive to reporters taking issue with the decided lack of questions directed at their candidate. (All told, Dodd got nine questions and 8 minutes and 28 seconds of speaking time, less than every candidate but Biden and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.) He's got a point but it's also sort of beside the point. Dodd must find ways to inject himself into the debate -- even if that means being rude or breaking the rules sometimes. He didn't do that last night and therefore failed to stand out.

Second hour of the debate: Maybe the first hour raised our expectations too high but the second sixty minutes felt directionless and generally devoid of any sort of meaningful interaction. Rather than standing behind podiums the candidates sat in chairs and fielded questions from the audience in a town hall format. We are all for town halls but the questions had a haphazard feel that proved incapable of bringing out anything other than platitudes from the candidates.

"Raise your hand" questions: It looks like these quick-survey questions have a relatively short shelf life. After delivering one of the most interesting moments of the Republican debate when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they didn't believe in evolution, the Democrats rebelled against this sort of question last night. Obama began the revolt after the candidates were asked to raise their hand if they believed English should be the country's official language. "This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us," he said. Clinton piled on later: "One of the jobs of a president is being very reasoned in approaching these issues. And I don't think it's useful to be talking in these kind of abstract, hypothetical terms." Can the "raise your hand" questions bounce back from that sort of pummeling from the frontrunners?

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 4, 2007; 12:47 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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