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Democratic Debate Roundup

Tonight's Democratic debate at Howard University was more a series of mini stump speeches than an actual give and take between the candidates.

The two leading candidates -- Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) -- nicely distinguished themselves, scoring two of the most memorable moments of the night. Clinton drew a standing ovation in response to a question on the problem of HIV/AIDS in the black community; Obama's early acknowledgement that only by the work of many African American before him was he able to stand on the stage was poignant and powerful.

Since each of the eight candidates was given roughly equal time and allowed to answer the same question, lesser knowns like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and former Sen. Mike Gravel (Alaska) stood out far more than they had in previous debates. Kucinich's answers, which regularly returned to the war in Iraq, drew loud applause; Gravel's responses were greeted kindly but quizzically.

Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) cast himself as a doer throughout the debate, noting that he had announced his candidacy in New Orleans, worked in a mill and started a center devoted to understanding and solving the problem of poverty.

As for the other three candidates, none stood out -- slowed by a format that led to long breaks in between answers by each candidate. Moderator Tavis Smiley did his level best to move the debate along, but the candidates regularly went over their allotted time. And, the format did not recommend itself to candidates engaging one another, a necessity if you are a second-tier candidate in hopes of making an impact in the debate.

The most intriguing element of the debate was how Clinton and Obama used the various questions asked of them to present their separate strengths. For Clinton, the debate was all about experience -- she mentioned her work in the Senate over and over again when asked how she would handle education, poverty and race relations. Obama focused on his vision for the country, repeatedly seeking to broaden the question asked of him and demonstrate his willingness and ability to change the parameters of the political debate.

It's a fundamental difference between the philosophical approaches to the campaign adopted by the two frontrunners and one that is sure to play out further as the campaign continues.

-- Chris Cillizza

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 28, 2007; 10:58 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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