Democratic Debate Preview
Seven Democrats -- sorry Mike Gravel fans! -- gather tonight in Philadelphia for perhaps the most eagerly anticipated debate of the presidential cycle to date.
Why the excitement? This will be the first chance -- on national television, no less -- for Sen. Barack Obama(D-Ill.) to make good on his pledge to be more aggressive in drawing contrasts with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
We'll be liveblogging the proceedings, which start at 9 p.m. EDT on MSNBC, but in the meantime here are a few points to ponder heading into tonight:
* Tone Matters: With expectations high for Obama to go on the attack against Clinton, he faces something of a high-wire act. If he is too passive -- simply mentioning that the two have differences on Iraq, Iran, torture and Social Security as he did in the MTV/MySpace presidential dialogue yesterday -- Obama runs the risk of being painted as confrontation-averse. But, if he is too aggressive in his attempt to draw bright lines between himself and Clinton Obama faces an entirely different and potentially more dangerous backlash. Remember back to 2000 when Rep. Rick Lazio (R) approached Clinton during a debate in their Senate contest and demanded that she sign a clean campaigns pledge? That move bombed as voters saw Lazio as attempting to bully Clinton. Clinton could well benefit if Obama or former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) are seen as pushing too hard or ganging up on her.
* Beyond the Laugh? To date, Clinton has laughed off -- literally -- attacks from her opponents. It's a classic Rose Garden strategy: a candidate with a lead rarely engages his (or her) opponents for fear of elevating them unnecessarily. Watch tonight to see if Clinton continues the laughter strategy or whether she pushes back in some substantive way against Obama and/or Edwards. If she does push back, it's fair to conclude that Clinton's campaign has decided that ignoring her opponents' barbs is no longer tenable with roughly two months to go before the first votes are cast and polling in Iowa showing the race is nip and tuck.
* Whither John Edwards? As the media (Fix included) waits expectantly for the first real confrontation between Obama and Clinton tonight, Edwards must find a way to keep himself relevant in this forum and in the race more broadly. As we have written, Edwards arguably has articulated the anti-Clinton message better than Obama to date but may not wind up benefitting from that fact if the narrative of the race continues to trend toward a Clinton-Obama showdown. If Obama does really go after Clinton tonight, what does Edwards do? Does he tag team with Obama -- as they did at the YearlyKos presidential forum -- to put her on her heels? Or does Edwards turn it into a three-way scrap by hitting Obama on his own reform credentials in hopes of keeping the stories in the paper tomorrow from solely focusing on Clinton vs. Obama?
* Second Tier Step Up: At the majority of Democratic debates over the last three months, there has been a clear line between the top tier (Edwards, Obama, Clinton) and the second tier. Each of the second-tier candidates who retain hope of making the leap -- Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.), Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Sen. Joe Biden (Del.) -- are running out of time to do so. Can they make it happen tonight? Much of it is out of their hands as the format is likely to give the three leading candidates most of the airtime. When they get chances, expect Richardson to emphasize his plan to remove all troops from Iraq by the end of the year, Biden to emphasize his "three state" solution in the country and Dodd, perhaps, to note he was the first Democrat running for president to announce his opposition to Michael Mukasey's nomination as U.S. Attorney General.
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