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Sunday's Democratic Debate: Winners and Losers

If The Fix was a bit groggy yesterday morning at the start of the Democratic debate in Des Moines, the 90-minute affair didn't do much to wake us up.

Obama and Clinton
Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton chat Sunday in Des Moines before the ABC-sponsored candidate debate. Obama fended off questions raised by Clinton and others about whether he has sufficient experience to be president. (Reuters)

The debate started off with real promise as moderator George Stephanopoulos sought to goad each of the frontrunners into answering whether Barack Obama had the requisite experience to be president. Unfortunately for Stephanopoulos (and the sleepy Fix), the leading Democrats seemed content to play it safe, avoiding any real direct attacks against one another.

The second tier tried to get involved, but the frontrunners' unwillingness to throw punches made it tough for people like Joe Biden and Chris Dodd to score many points.

Despite the no tackle nature of the debate, some winners and losers did emerge -- although as we wrote yesterday, the lack of action was good news for Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards, who are knotted in a three-way tie in Iowa.

As always, the winners and losers listed below are one man's opinion and inherently subjective. Agree or disagree? Use the comments section to offer your own thoughts on the debate.

WINNERS

Barack Obama: We've been critical of Obama's debate performance in the past -- too ponderous, not sufficiently to the point. On Sunday Obama was able to show the thoughtfulness that his campaign believes distinguishes him from the rest of the field without seeming as scattered as he has in past debates. Obama was consistently on message, pushing the idea that he alone can change the way business is done in Washington and pushing back on attacks on his experience by pointing out that he was the only one of the frontrunners to oppose the war in Iraq from the start. Obama's answer on the decisive moment of his life -- the last question of the debate -- showed the candidate at his best. Rather than an entirely canned answer, Obama cited his transition from high school to college, noting that he was at times "an angry young man" who found what he had to give in that tough period of his life.

Bill Richardson: Richardson is never going to be as eloquent as Obama, as well-versed on issues as Clinton or as fiery as Edwards. But on Sunday he was better than he has been in previous debates, making sure he stayed in the center of the conversation on Iraq and that viewers knew he was alone among the field for calling for the removal of all American troops from Iraq by the end of the year. Richardson was similarly resolute when asked his position on the No Child Left Behind act: "Scrap it," he urged. "It is a disaster." What Richardson seems to have realized is that a political campaign is not the same as governing; people tend to respond positively to black-and-white pronouncements no matter how much gray area exists on an issue. Richardson also managed to come up with the line of the debate, noting that with Clinton you get experience and with Obama you get change. "With me you get both," Richardson said to laughter from the audience.

California Nurses Association: The group aired two television ads during the debate -- calling out Obama and Clinton in particular -- that emphasized the need for real reform on health care. It was a huge platform for the group and is like to win them and their cause more notice in the coming days. Plus, The Fix is a sucker for cardboard cutouts of politicians in ads.

LOSERS

Joe Biden: Biden has proven his debating chops in the previous forums, but in yesterday's early morning debate (the debate was live at 8 a.m. in Iowa), he was more angry than we've seen him in the past. Biden's countenance ranged from dour to outright annoyed, and it didn't wear well. On the question of when in his public life he offered up less than the whole truth, Biden said he couldn't cite a single instance. Come on! He has been in the Senate since he was 30 years old.

Chris Dodd: Dodd has the elements to make a surprise showing in Iowa: quality staff at both the state and national levels and enough money to make his message heard. And yet, he just can't get a spark. Sunday's debate certainly didn't provide one, as it's hard to remember a single moment that involved the senator from Connecticut. That's a problem, especially since debates and forums featuring all of the candidates are likely to be fewer and farther between, thanks to Obama's pledge to compete in just eight (yes, eight!) more. Dodd needs to make a move in Iowa, but it's hard to see how at the moment.

Dennis Kucinich: Unlike in past debates where Kucinich seemed to be a refreshing presence, on Sunday he seemed to give the same answer to every single question. Also, his habit of saying "thank you" at the end of every question started to grate on us once we started to notice it. (Sort of like Rachel Ray's constant hand movement -- SO distracting.)

By Chris Cillizza  |  August 20, 2007; 7:49 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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Next: Nevada: More Bad News for Edwards

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