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The Democratic Debate: Winners and Losers

ORANGEBURG, S.C. -- Even before the first Democratic presidential debate ended last night, the spin had begun. Advisers and allies to each of the candidates touted their guy's (or gal's) best moment while downplaying any perceived slip. Less publicly, they cast subtle aspersions on their opponents' alleged gaffes.

The reality is that the presidential race is still largely an insider's game at this point and for a casual observer last night there wasn't a heck of a lot of difference between the candidates -- with the notable exceptions of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and former Sen. Mike Gravel (Alaska). Most of the candidates lambasted President Bush over the war in Iraq while largely avoiding any direct confrontations with one another.

But, since The Fix is among the biggest political junkies out there, we were watching very closely to determine who may gain/lose some insider buzz or momentum from last night's gathering. Below you'll find our winners and losers from the debate. These are of course subjective and meant to start a conversation. Feel free to offer your own thoughts on who shined and who stumbled.

WINNERS

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.): Clinton entered the debate with high expectations and managed to meet them -- not an easy task. She was informed, concise and under control at all times. She showed her tough side when asked what she would do in the event of simultaneous terrorist attacks against two American cities -- a question Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) initially muffed before going back to it later -- and managed to avoid any real confrontation over her refusal to apologize for her vote in favor of the use of force resolution. Clinton also got several breaks: her "elephant in the room" question was on why Republicans want to run against her next November (a hanging curveball that she belted), she was never the first candidate forced to answer one of the tougher questions (as Obama was on the terrorist attacks query), and she was given the chance to rebut several comments made by other candidates that seemed far from direct attacks on her. While Clinton didn't determine the format of the debate, she definitely benefited from it.

Sen. Joe Biden (Del.): Every debate has a "moment." Last night's came courtesy of Biden. Asked by moderator Brian Williams whether he could "reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage," Biden responded simply: "Yes." The comment drew laughs throughout the room (and in the press filing center as well) and effectively silenced Biden critics who argue he is incapable of answering any question without a 10-minute speech. That moment symbolized Biden's evening. He was regularly one of the more quotable candidates on stage, an important trait in the TV age, and made sure voters knew of his long experience on issues both foreign and domestic. He even managed to work in a reference to his efforts to keep Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork from the bench -- a sure winner in the eyes of liberal Democrats who loathe Bork.

Brian Williams: Moderating a 90-minute debate with eight candidates dead set on getting equal time is akin to performing a high-wire act without a net. Williams delivered -- ensuring that viewers got to hear the most from the leading candidates in the polls while not excluding the others on stage. Williams also avoided injecting himself into the debate too much, picking his spots and using a quick wit to keep the candidates on their toes.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Ginsburg was selected by former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.) as their model Supreme Court Justice. Of course, Richardson and Dodd both chose deceased Justices (Byron "Whizzer" White for Richardson, William Brennan for Dodd) before being forced to name someone among the living.

Personal Questions: From a show of hands for who on the stage had ever had a gun in their home (Gravel, Biden, Dodd, Kucinich and Richardson each raised a hand) to a question asking each candidate to name the biggest mistake they had made in the past several years, the night has a bit of an "Oprah" feel to it. We were half-expecting the question: "If you were an animal, what animal would you be?"

LOSERS

Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.): We've noted previously on The Fix that Richardson's occasional tendency to appear more like a stand-up comic than a candidate for president complicates his chances of being taken seriously in the primary process. And, to his credit last night, Richardson was serious -- almost too serious. Richardson regularly went over the allotted time for his answers, forcing Williams to cut him off in mid-sentence often. The New Mexico Governor also appeared uncomfortable at times on the stage, a visual impression heightened by the fact that his podium was off to one side of the stage. In the post-debate spin room Richardson was more himself -- a gregarious, hands-on charmer with a detailed knowledge of what it takes to make government work. But, most people didn't get to see that side of him. Richardson came into the debate as the candidate most likely to eventually join Edwards, Clinton and Obama in the top tier. Maybe. But his performance didn't get him any close to that goal.

Former Sen. Mike Gravel (Alaska): People don't like angry in their presidential candidates. And, "angry" typified Gravel's performance last night. Gravel called Biden "arrogant", said he felt like a "potted plant" because of the lack of questions directed to him. Taking a cue from Ronald Reagan, Gravel also said that he would forgive the other candidates on stage for their youth and inexperience. Last time we checked Gravel was an asterisk in any and all polling. Don't be shocked if this is the only debate Gravel is asked to participate in.

Specifics: The format rewarded general policy pronouncements (end the war in Iraq, bring about universal healthcare) over specific proposals. Former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) tried his damnedest to ensure that viewers knew he was the candidate of specifics ("Rhetoric is not enough," he said at one point. "High falutin' language is not enough.") but he was fighting a losing battle. The good thing for policy lovers is that there are MANY more debates to come between now and the Jan. 14, 2008 Iowa caucuses.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 27, 2007; 11:42 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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