Was last night's Democratic debate a trick or a treat for those seeking to unseat the front-runner? The eight candidates on stage did their best to cast Hillary Clinton as the scariest candidate in the race – for fellow Democrats, that is. John Edwards, Barack Obama and, to a lesser extent the rest of the field, tried to put a George Bush mask on Clinton's candidacy with at least some effectiveness.
To nobody's surprise, the field came out swinging at the front-runner, openly questioning Clinton's honesty, credibility, integrity, fealty to the party's values, ties to the Washington establishment and positions on issues ranging from Social Security to Iran. It was a tag-team match between six candidates and the New York senator and while Clinton left firmly planted on two feet with another solid performance, some cracks in her armor may have started to widen a bit.
Clinton's approach to the war in Iraq, and foreign policy in general, has been more pragmatic than what most Democratic activists are looking for. She appears to have put to rest early unrest about her refusal to apologize for voting for the Iraq war authorization in 2002 but that same uneasiness looks to be seeping back in on the issue of Iran.
The front-runner was hit early and often over her vote on a non-binding Senate resolution which urged the Bush administration to designate part of Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization (which they since have done). Clinton stood her ground, arguing that it's part of what is necessary to do in order to sanction Iran and then pursue diplomatic means designed to stop that nation from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Obama, and more effectively Edwards, used Clinton's defense to make a connection between Iraq and Iran by claiming that her vote could be seen as one to give President Bush the rationale to attack Iran. It's a connection that could well raise concerns about Clinton once again among a large segment of a party still unsure about her dedication to ending the war in Iraq.
As a woman candidate seeking to become commander-in-chief, Clinton has long struggled to straddle the line between meeting her party's base on Iraq and the need to look like a strong leader. That line was even thinner last night.
Questions about electability dominated a good part of the debate, with Clinton arguing that Republican attacks on her demonstrated their fear of her candidacy while others suggested they see her as the easiest Democrat to defeat in a general election. The moderators even got into the action with questions about the failure of the Clinton presidential library to make some documents public from the 1990s. That question led to one of the most pointed attacks from Obama, who said the country needed no more secrecy from its presidents.
If Clinton got a little dinged up, it's less clear who benefited from the focus on her. Edwards was the most openly aggressive, hammering Clinton on a near personal level and at one point almost mocking her position on Iran, saying that if Bush attacked that country in the next six months, he feared that her response would be similar to what she has said about Iraq – if only she knew then what she knows now.
Obama also went straight at her on foreign policy and Social Security but was careful to avoid getting overly critical on a personal level. Even Joe Biden and Chris Dodd took their jabs, leading Bill Richardson to say he was uncomfortable with the tone of the debate. Clinton could benefit if voters perceive her as a victim but that is unlikely for someone who has established her toughness over the past 15 years.
Edwards and Obama appear to have accomplished at least some of what they indicated they were looking to do coming into this debate – knocking Clinton off-stride for at least a moment. The Senator was prepared and well-versed in both the details of policy and the big picture and defended herself without re-engaging her opponents for the most part. But she looked none too happy doing so. The "cackle" was gone, replaced with a firm countenance and even firmer voice.
Clinton has been careful throughout this campaign to keep one eye fixed on positioning herself for a general election campaign by not getting boxed into saying things to primary voters she may regret next November. After last night, she might have to begin focusing both those eyes on winning a nomination fight that begins to count votes in just nine weeks. (Note: The above analysis is an updated version of a post from late last night).
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