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Pennsylvania Debate Preview

UPDATE, 5:55 pm: The Fix has finally arrived at the site of tonight's Democratic presidential debate -- a mere two and a half hours before the event begins. The debate is being billed as a prize fight of sorts (maybe the last one of the primary) and the signs dotted everywhere at the National Constitution Center play up that idea; "Clinton vs Obama: The Democrats Debate" they read.

As Fixistas know by now, reporters don't actually get to sit in the hall for these debates but are relegated to press filing centers. And, after a series of nights (and days) spent in just these sort of places, we fashion ourselves connoisseurs of them. The best thing about this one? Pretzels with mustard provided -- a Philly classic. Worst thing: It's freezing, which does little for The Fix's cold.

The Fix spent most of the midday hours on a train up to Philadelphia and during that time had an opportunity to look more closely at three polls (in Indiana, Pennsylvania and North Carolina) released last night by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg.

A few thoughts:

* Hillary Clinton's entire campaign at this point is premised on the idea that she is the stronger candidate against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the fall general election campaign. Across each of the three states, however, voters disagreed. In Pennsylvania, 21 percent said Clinton had the best chance of being elected in the fall while 33 percent chose Barack Obama and 37 percent said the two had an equal chance. The numbers were far more lopsided in favor of Obama in Indiana (18 percent Clinton/37 percent Obama/28 percent equal) and North Carolina (17 percent Clinton/39 percent Obama/27 percent equal).

* Voters in all three states believe Clinton understands issues like trade and health care better than Obama, even though it doesn't necessarily lead them to support her. In Indiana, 48 percent said Clinton "better understands" trade issues as compared to 27 percent who said it is Obama with the superior grasp of the issue; in North Carolina 44 percent said Clinton knew the trade issue best wile 29 percent named Obama. And yet, in both states Clinton trailed in the overall vote -- 40 percent to 35 percent in Indiana and 47 percent to 34 percent in North Carolina. Why? Because on a comparison of the personal characteristics of the two candidates, Obama swamps Clinton. Who has more "honesty and integrity"? Obama leads Clinton by 35 points in North Carolina, 31 points in Indiana and 19 points in Pennsylvania. On which candidate could bring about real change, Obama's margins are similar in all three states. What does that tell us? That even though voters may think Clinton is better equipped to handle the issues they care most about, they are prioritizing personal qualities far more than issue stances in the primary fight to date.

* The number of Democrats who believe the country is off on the "wrong track" is truly stunning. In Pennsylvania, just seven percent of Democrats said the country was headed in the right direction while 85 percent (!) said it was on the wrong track. The numbers in Indiana (11 percent right direction/81 percent wrong track) and North Carolina (12 percent/81 percent) are similar. With that kind of dissatisfaction within the party, it would seem that much of the hand-wringing by party strategists about the potential damage done by the protracted primary is much ado about nothing. Democrats are deeply unhappy about the way President Bush has led the country and it's hard to imagine that level of discontent disappearing simply because their preferred Democratic candidate didn't win the party's nod.

THE ORIGINAL POSTING:

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. -- Tonight's Democratic debate between Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) marks the first time in 50 days that the two have shared a stage.

Given that hiatus -- and all of the news (Rev. Wright, Tuzla, bitter, etc.) that has transpired during it -- expectations are extremely high for tonight's faceoff at the National Constitution Center.

Unlike the three past debates between Obama and Clinton, the pressure is on the Illinois senator tonight as he works to put his comments about Pennsylvania voters being "bitter" about their circumstances behind him.

Polling conducted in the aftermath of the media firestorm seems to suggest that most voters aren't particularly affected by Obama's comments -- a development that Obama is almost certain to make note of in the back and forth tonight. But, Clinton and the debate's moderators are almost certain to push Obama on the issue. How he reacts could well determine what the storyline is coming out of tonight.

The Fix will be reporting from the debate site but in the meantime here's a few other things to mull in advance of the proceedings:

* Clinton -- Naughty or Nice? Clinton's approach has fluctuated widely in recent debates. At times she is magnanimous to and about Obama, at others she appears to be looking for every opportunity to knee-cap him. Our guess is that the tougher Clinton is the one who takes the stage tonight; her campaign, rightly or wrongly, believes that the "bitter" comments made by Obama offer her perhaps her best chance yet in the campaign to change the narrative. If Clinton can't make "bitter" stick to Obama tonight, she may never have another opportunity to do so; no other debates have been scheduled in the remaining six weeks of the nomination fight.

* Obama -- Professor or Pugilist? Like Clinton, Obama has adopted a number of different styles during the 20 (or so) debates of the campaign. The Illinois senator is best when goes off script -- often during a heated exchange between candidates. Obama is quick on his feet and has a natural sense for repartee. He's at his worst when faced with a question about the economy or health care; he dips into his college professor mode, offering a series of philosophical arguments almost entirely bereft of specifics or any real passion. For The Fix, the difference in Obama's approaches is similar to listening to a CD and seeing a band live. Obama needs to go for that live feel tonight.

* Moderators: Too often the role of the men (and women) who share the stage with the candidates is overlooked. The truth of the matter is that the moderators guide the questioning, deciding when to give a candidate a chance to respond and when to simply move on, when to push on an answer and when to let it lie. That role tonight falls to "World News" anchor Charlie Gibson and "This Week" host George Stephanapolous -- two of the best in the business. Do the two men decide to push Obama to further explain the "bitter" hubbub or take his previously stated explanation, which he is sure to repeat tonight, at face value? What about Clinton's exaggerations about her 1996 trip to Bosnia (a controversy that has largely been eclipsed in the media in the last week or so)?

* Domestic or Foreign? The economy continues to be the dominant issue for voters in Pennsylvania -- and elsewhere across the country. Given its front-of-the mind status for voters, does the economy dominate the questioning and answers tonight? Or, in the wake of Gen. David Petraeus' testimony to Congress last week, will Iraq be the central topic of the debate? Clinton has to hope for the former scenario as she is on much more solid ground talking about domestic issues like economy and health care than about the war and her vote for the 2002 use-of-force resolution against Iraq.

* The Crowd: The vast majority of people watching tonight's proceedings -- The Fix included -- will be doing so on television. But, how the crowd in the debate hall could have an impact. If one or the other candidate is booed or heckled, it could well affect how folks on television perceive the winners and losers from tonight. (Doubt us? Check out how Obama's campaign used a few shouted "No's" during a Clinton speech to great effect in his latest ad.) The moderators will, of course, ask the crowd to refrain from any exclamations but we all know that is a rule that won't be followed.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 16, 2008; 12:56 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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