I Watch Democratic Debates, So You Don't Have To

This post, written by Steve Benen, originally appeared on The Carpetbagger Report

The conventional wisdom, which in this case isn't entirely wrong, tells us that the Democratic candidates not named Hillary Clinton have to start taking some pointed risks in order to shake up the race. That means, among other things, taking Clinton on directly at debates.

The approach is not without risk. Dem voters frequently sour on candidates who are too aggressive in taking on the frontrunner (see Gephardt, Dick, circa 2003). But doing nothing is nearly as dangerous -- Clinton's winning this race and if her rivals don't try to slow her down, they won't catch her.

What we saw last night was a field of non-Clinton candidates trying to thread the needle. Overall, I think they did a fairly good job at it.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton found herself on the defensive here Wednesday night in a debate in which the Democratic presidential candidates clashed over withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, the financial future of Social Security and Iran's nuclear threat.
The two-hour debate features clear differences but few fireworks. Clinton (N.Y.), the front-runner for the nomination, drew steady criticism, but her seven rivals couched their disagreements with respect rather than scorn or sharp words. [...]
After turning in a series of winning performances in previous debates, Clinton appeared less dominant on Wednesday. Her potential vulnerabilities were highlighted either through questions from moderator Tim Russert of NBC News or from responses from her opponents.
That sounds about right. For example, Clinton was the only person on the stage to support the Lieberman-Kyl amendment on Iran yesterday. In discussing the policy, John Edwards said, "I voted for this war in Iraq, and I was wrong to vote for this war. And I accept responsibility for that. Senator Clinton also voted for this war. We learned a very different lesson from that. I have no intention of giving George Bush the authority to take the first step on a road to war with Iran."

Similarly, on health care, Barack Obama said, "I think Hillary Clinton deserves credit for having worked on health care. I think John deserves credit for his proposal.... The issue is not going to be who has these particular plans. It has to do with who can inspire and mobilize the American people to get it done and open up the process. If it was lonely for Hillary [in 1993], part of the reason it was lonely, Hillary, was because you closed the door to a lot of potential allies in that process. At that time, 80 percent of Americans already wanted universal health care, but they didn't feel like they were let into the process."

Hardly a gloves-come-off brawl, but clear hints that Clinton will have to endure some increasingly-tough barbs as the process moves forward.

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