Democratic Debate: First Take

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Everyone had a good debate.

(Campaign pull-quote compilers, take note.)

But who did best? The audience is undecided Democratic caucus goers. Who stood out? Who was different? Who seemed most presidential? Who parlayed their strengths? Who gave people reasons to believe in the negative stereotypes about them?

On balance, Clinton and Edwards.... Why them, and not Obama? Because Clinton and Edwards repeatedly wove their answers into a larger argument, and Obama generally kept his answers to his answers. He did well though. No calls, Chicago. No calls.

Repeatedly, Clinton cast herself as a champion of middle class material concerns. “They feel as though they are standing on a trap door,” they said, and If you listened carefully, you heard her say that she would raise taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals.

Almost every other phrase out of John Edwards’s mouth contained the words “corporate power..” or “entrenched interests.” And Edwards wasn’t aggressive. He wasn’t angry Johnny. He was nice Johnny boy, although he did snip at the moderator at one point and couldn’t resist a jab at Bill Richardson.

Clinton’s opening statement was very strong and pointed.

“Everyone wants change. Some believe you get change by demanding it, and some believe you get change by hoping for it. Some believe you get change by working hard for it. That’s what I’ll do as president."

It’s a great line. But in saying this, she conceded that she was scrounging on territory claimed by Obama and Edwards. Also, Iowans don’t like lines. They like nice. Saccharine even. Pure rhetorical glucose, though, and not a sugar substitute.

Biden, Dodd, and Richardson. Exceedingly mature, gave folks on the fence about them a reason to keep liking them, but neither stood out enough to move too many votes. Richardson had some strong, early, detailed answers on balancing the budget (he thinks it’s feasible immediately, others don’t) and on budget priorities, and on education.

Biden turned a tricky question about his penchant for gaffes into a very good moment wherein
Obama personally attested to his hard work on behalf of racial justice. Iowa nice.

Say what you will about the format, the graphics, the moderator, the theme music, the staging, the stage lighting: every candidate had enough time to be strong, and every candidate was.
To the extent that it matters, Fox News’s dial group loved Edwards and not Hillary Clinton. (They also liked Obama.)

The Register’s editorial endorsement is set to drop on Sunday

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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