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Democrats Waltz Through Iowa Debate

3616202It was a different group of candidates who took center stage in Iowa today but the final debate before the Iowa caucuses didn't yield much difference in terms of results. Despite a few moments of levity and tension, the six Democrats trod through a list of rather pedestrian questions in much the same way their Republican counterparts did yesterday – with a litany of generalities and campaign slogans.

To the benefit of the candidates on stage considered unlikely to win the nomination, the lack of an Alan Keyes or Mike Gravel made this an affair where all six candidates looked as if they belonged in a presidential debate. Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson all stood out as articulate, thinking candidates with a vision of what they would do as president.

But the reality is that the race, at least for now, remains a three-way competition between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. While there was no direct mention of some of the issues which these three have bickered about in the past, each managed to set themselves apart in ways the Republicans did not. If there was a winner, it may have been Edwards. His answers to almost every question hewed to his populist themes of sticking up for the disadvantaged and sticking it to corporate America. That should play well among Democrats in Iowa.

Obama was once again the "hope" candidate, urging Democrats to seize the moment and the movement he appears to be riding. A question about his reliance on former Clinton administration officials for foreign policy advice could have been a bad moment for him as he tried to differentiate his approach to candidate Clinton's. But he was saved by a return of the Clinton "laugh."

For her part, Clinton showed absolutely none of the desperation or indecisiveness that is rumored to be affecting her campaign as her once-formidable lead has shrunk. She exuded complete confidence in winning the nomination, so much so that one of her New Year's resolutions was to run a general election campaign that can attract support from all quarters. She managed to take slight shots at both Edwards and Obama in talking about change, saying some of her opponent demand it while others simply hope for it.

The most riveting moment in an otherwise un-riveting debate centered around Joe Biden who was asked about past comments he had made concerning African Americans, including calling Obama "articulate" on the eve of announcing his candidacy. A heartfelt defense of his own record on civil rights was met with applause by his opponents and a direct statement of support from Obama. It was a nice moment that exhibited a lot of respect for Biden. But with the Iowa caucuses just 21 days away now, don't expect the love-fest to spill out onto the trail.

Read on for a live-blog account of the debate:

3:25pm: New Years resolutions. Clinton says aside from personal goals, she wants to run a campaign that Democrats and Independents can be proud of – clearly expecting the nomination. Edwards talks poverty, Dodd wants to regain America's moral authority and optimism – and that Iowans caucus "and caucus correctly." Richardson resolves to lose weight and wants peace in Washington. Biden says he makes the same one every year, "remember where I came from." Obama wants to be a better father and husband and to remind himself "this is not about me."

Lessons from Iowa? Clinton says she's "eaten my way across the state" and praises the intimacy of the process. Dodd says he loves the independence of Iowa voters and their ability to make up their own minds. Richardson says he likes the fact that Iowans like underdogs. Biden says he's never met a group of people who take the process so seriously and treat it with respect. Obama says he's been struck by the "core decency of the American people."

And, we're done. Back soon with a wrapup.

3:15pm: Obama gets an interesting foreign policy question – why is it that he relies on many foreign policy advisers from the Clinton administration. Best moment of either Iowa debate as Clinton laughs and says she wants to hear and answer to that question as well – in other words, how would his policy differ from hers? Obama shoots back, "Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well," and says he wants to get advice from everywhere.

3:10pm: Is Huckabee influencing the Democratic race? First Obama talks about the importance of keeping Americans healthy, then Richardson emphasizes teaching the arts in school. Of course, who's against those things? Also not surprisingly, the candidates are for improved education, better-paid teachers and don't think much of "No Child Left Behind."

What big things can they accomplish during their first year? Obama says he'd order the Joint Chiefs to get troops out of Iraq, review every executive order issued by President Bush and reverse those which are unconstitutional. Biden would get the Biden Plan passed to create three separate areas of Iraq. Richardson: End the war, all troops out; universal health care; an energy revolution and promise to follow the Constitution. Dodd, in response: "It's going to be a long year." He promises to return the Constitution to America (National Treasure, Restore The Constitution). Edwards wants to take the country back (presumably from Republicans). Clinton will end the war, make friends, etc.

Clinton is asked about openness and the criticism she received for lack of that during the 1993 health care reform push. She calls it a PR mistake and says she's learned a lot and wants openness. No chance for Obama or anyone else to talk about the records that the Clinton library will not release.

Biden is asked about his characterization of Obama as "articulate." Biden defends his civil rights record and gets applause from the rest of the candidates. Obama says provides a character witness. Clearly nobody is buying any hint of prejudice on the part of Biden.

2:55pm: Farm subsidies – Obama gets into a little senatorial speak on whether he would have voted for a recent farm bill on the matter but otherwise shows a pretty good grasp of the issue. Clinton mostly avoids the distinction between one vote and another. Tom Harkin's getting a lot of love from the stage, as are family farmers.

Clinton gets her 30-seconds on free time. Everyone wants change and "some of us" want to achieve change by "hoping for it" (wonder who that might be). Clinton says she wants to bring about change by working for it – and says she knows how. Clinton also is a rare candidate to directly ask for the vote, something that most in both parties have not done in these debates. Dodd also directly asks for support.

2:40pm: Obama is the first candidate to get his 30-second free time and uses it to make an argument he's been pushing more and more recently – quoting Martin Luther King on the "fierce urgency of now." Implicit in Clinton's theme of experience is that this is no time to take a risk on someone as young and untested as Obama. We heard Oprah Winfrey last weekend talk about this, telling potential Obama supporters that this is their time. The ongoing hope v. experience battle.

Biden uses his time to talk about "action" as a direct counter to "experience" and "change." Richardson follows Romney by thanking the people of Iowa, then wonders why the Iraq war has faded from the agenda. "Thirty-eight Americans died in November, our troops," and says it is the number one issue affecting Iowa caucus goers.

Do the energy plans being proposed carry too much cost – more expensive cars, etc? Biden wants every car sold by 2009 to be a flex-fuel vehicle, calls it a "moral crusade" and says the president will have to call for sacrifice. Dodd points out he's the only one to propose a corporate carbon tax, cites support from Al Gore for his energy plan. Clinton says it will cause some pain but says she has a cushion in her plan and equates energy with a national cause like the Apollo program.

2:25pm: An interesting question – how will all these new ideas be paid for if, as most candidates acknowledge, troops will be in Iraq for some period of time? Biden says he thinks he can get them out within a year and says eliminating military programs and weapons systems would help. Obama says his programs are completely paid for right now. Richardson also cites other military spending and systems but doesn't go as far as Biden it seems.

Next up, a question on China. Richardson says we need to get tougher, that China is at a competitive advantage. Dodd calls is an adversarial relationship, cites China's reliance on slave labor then says it's important not to "get bellicose."

Clinton doesn't get a chance to answer the China question but is first up on entitlements. She says Medicare costs are rising too quickly and says her health care plan will bring costs down. She mentions her bipartisan commission idea when it comes to Social Security but interestingly doesn't mention the trillion-dollar tax hike she says would be a result of lifting the cap on payroll taxes. Biden calls for lifting the cap.

Obama sounds like Huckabee (or is it the other way around?), saying that if we had the obesity rate we did in 1980, Medicare would be fine. Obama does use the issue to once again say that the only way to change things is to get rid of the business-as-usual crowd. He took the opportunity, Clinton didn't. Interesting.

2:10pm: Like yesterday, a question about the economy leads the debate. Interesting that organizers feel this is the issue getting little attention but it's not surprising it would be on the minds of Iowans.

Obama won't pledge to balance the budget each year in office, blaming the current situation and saying it will take time to dig out of the hole. Richardson calls for a line-item veto. Biden has a cold and his voice sounds scratchy, he wants cuts in military programs. Dodd takes a slight jab at Richardson by pointing out that the federal budget is slightly more complicated than that of the state of New Mexico.

Edwards talks about creating jobs and protecting jobs and taking on corporations, a nice play to Iowa Democrats. You want a balanced budget, Clinton asks – there were balanced budgets in the 1990s when her husband was president. Experience, experience, experience.

Preview: If form holds, the Democratic presidential debate getting underway just minutes from now should be a calm and mellow affair. The only thing missing to spice things up will be Alan Keyes. In fact, there will be a smaller group on stage, just six candidates – Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd. Not making the cut, according to the Des Moines Register's requirements were Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel.

While most pundits and observers were disappointed with the lack of sparks in yesterday's event, we might see a little more today. Fewer candidates means more time for those participating and that means more opportunities to work in some digs and distinguish themselves from one another.

Like yesterday, the candidates enter with a whiff of negativity in the air. Mike Huckabee's ponderings about Mormon theology were never addressed in the debate but mostly dominated coverage of the GOP race yesterday. Today, it's statements made by an influential Clinton adviser in New Hampshire about Obama's past drug use that are making headlines. Huckabee personally apologized to Mitt Romney after the debate Wednesday but Clinton didn't wait, personally issuing her regret for the comments to Obama this morning, CBS News confirms.

It's doubtful that the topic will arise this afternoon, unless one of the candidates themselves make an issue of it. But there's plenty of tension between Clinton and Obama to watch. The Illinois senator has closed the gap on Clinton, who was once seen as the prohibitive favorite in the race. The division continues to be experience versus new ideas so expect plenty of examples of each from the former First Lady and the new kid on the block.

John Edwards remains a strong force in Iowa, with a well-organized and committed core of support. Joe Biden is looking for a breakthrough and has shown surprising strength in the state. Like Biden, Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd need a breakthrough in the state on Iowa to keep their campaigns alive.

That's where the race sits coming into this final, final debate before the caucuses on January 3rd. While we'd like to look at it as a final showdown filled with drama and surprising turns, organizers yesterday signaled that these are forums to address less-discussed topics of the campaign. Unless that format changes, we can probably expect more of the same and fewer clear differences between these six people seeking the most important office in the world.

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