2008 Democratic Candidates: Up Close, Unfiltered and Uncomfortable

I just saw the most entertaining 2008 Democratic debate so far.

Now maybe it was more exciting because I saw it in person but as many others pointed out at the Yearly Kos convention, this afternoon's debate was more like how the CNN/YouTube debate should have been. There was more audience interaction, a less obtrusive moderator and the candidates really had to be on their toes (they had to deal with boos on a regular basis). Before I go through the debate blow by blow, here are some quick thoughts on who appeared:

Hillary Clinton

By far the most polarizing attendee at the convention. She ruffled many feathers before she even arrived when an announcement was made that she would only be appearing in the candidates' forum not in an individual "breakout session" as had been previously promised. Now in her defense, this was supposedly communicated to the convention's organizers far in advance but as we all know politics is often about perception. It was perceived as yet another slight from a candidate seen as adversarial to the netroots, the Obama campaign pounced and suddenly Clinton was able to make to time to appear, albeit before the debate and in what I am told was a "very corporate, staged" sort of manner (but more on that later).

As in all previous debates, Clinton was very prepared, well spoken etc. but she really wasn't ready for this audience and generally came off as arrogant--as if she had the nomination in the bag and was simply paying her respects to the other candidates and to the audience. She got almost universal bad reviews from the people I spoke to. She likes to make it about Bush, never criticizes American policy or society in any way. It comes across as a message purely meant for a general election audience but what she fails to recognize is that she hasn't necessarily won over her own base yet.

John Edwards

In his case, I felt the pendulum swung way in the other direction from Hillary. While at first he was the most energetic and crowd pleasing of the candidates as the debate wore on he began to seem like he was simply pandering to what he knew was a left wing crowd and it appeared that he was making a lot of promises he couldn't back up in the hopes of just getting a big crowd response. His desperation showed and it also alienated some attendees.

Barack Obama

It was his birthday today, plus this is home town and it showed. He was a little shaky on his first question but then he seemed to settle comfortably in between Edwards and Clinton, not literally but philosophically. He took his time with his responses and had the audience on his side consistently. But what distinguished him from Clinton and Edwards was that his responses were often surprising, he would often raise issues that you just don't hear about or if you do you don't hear them expressed in this way. He seems more confident and he's chosen, I think, a clever response when his judgment is questioned--which is that he rails against the "conventional wisdom" on foreign policy. It's a dig at Hillary but not as obvious as some of Edwards can be. He was clearly the biggest hit with the audience.

Chris Dodd

But not far behind was Chris Dodd who garnered a lot of good will with convention attendees with his terrific appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor" where he defended the progressive blogosphere against O'Reilly's ridiculous attacks. When I watch him though I feel a sense of pity. He often has to follow a candidate like Edwards or Obama who he isn't that fundamentally different from but who's the bigger star or bigger attraction and he doesn't have much to build on. When he does grab a hold of a point that wins over the crowd he seems stunned to be receiving any kind of adulation at all so he lets his voice rise more and more until it becomes this indecipherable shout that can just be confusing and a little grating. Still, he seems like a strong VP candidate right now, not a strong dark horse candidate.


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