The debate from Las Vegas started out like it was a cage match between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer pacing the stage like one of those scantily-clad women at a boxing match who hold up the round number — but it soon settled into the usual format: each candidate would get asked a question, and after a pro forma response they would launch into their campaign’s carefully crafted talking point on something tangentially related to the original question. (Michael Scherer at Salon has a minute-by-minute report if you’re so inclined.)
Of course, everybody was watching to see if Hillary Clinton would make another fumble like she did the last time with the immigration question. She apparently learned her lesson and when she was asked if she favored drivers licenses for undocumented aliens, she had a one-word reply: “No.” The New York Times said she was “aggressive,” and landed a couple of quote-worthy sound bites. It was Sen. Obama’s turn to trip over the immigration question, and he bobbled the rather elementary (if not fatuous) question “which is more important; human rights or national security?” (Since when is that an “either-or” question? Since the Bush administration came into power?) He seemed to be about half-way through an answer before he remembered to challenge the premise of the question.
I got the requisite e-mail from the Edwards campaign early this morning telling me that John Edwards was “amazing” in the debate. Well, you know when they have to tell you that, you know he wasn’t. My impression was that he did okay, but he seemed a bit taken aback that Sen. Clinton would actually come back against his attacks.
The one who surprised me was Bill Richardson, who came across as polished, well-informed, and relaxed. This was the Bill Richardson I remember from the past, and I hope that the people who don’t know him got a good look. If he’s not going to win the nomination, he’s in the top tier for Vice President or Secretary of State.
Joe Biden got in some good cracks, and he even rattled off a few one-liners, but then again, this was Vegas: “Hey, you’re a great crowd! I’ll be here all week!” Dennis Kucinich looked peevish and cranky, and so were his answers. I think it’s dawning on him that the Kucinich groundswell ain’t gonna happen.
If the RNC was vultching* for some dead meat to use in their attacks against the Democrats, the pickings were slim; no one made any glaring gaffes, and Sen. Clinton got to use — again — the line, “They’re not attacking me because I’m a woman. They’re attacking me because I’m ahead,” which took care of the playing-the-gender-card fallacy that she’s been tagged with. I have to say that if there was anything that was off-putting about the whole show, it was that Wolf Blitzer (and Campbell Brown to a lesser degree) asked a lot of questions that seemed to be designed to set up sound bites for the RNC: asking about merit pay for teachers (since when does the Department of Education get to set that policy? It’s a state or local issue) or doing the “lightning round” with “yes or no” questions about things like abortion or torture. It seemed that for Mr. Blitzer, the question was more important than the answer. (And that droning monotone voice of his makes fingernails on a chalk board sound like Mozart.) I do wish one of the candidates had had the presence of mind to say, “That is the dumbest question I’ve ever heard.” The audience would have gone wild.
*”vultching” is the verb form of the word “vulture,” as in the bird that hangs around waiting for something to die. “To vultch” is the infinitive.