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Starting Gate: About Last Night

Most of the coverage of last night's Democratic debate in New Hampshire predictably hones in on two story lines. One, the fact that none of the three big candidates – Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards – would pledge to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq within the first four years of their presidency. Two, the "jabs" taken at front-runner Clinton.

Neither narratives are new. The Democratic candidates, with the exception of Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, have taken towards tamping down the expectations on Iraq for some weeks yet. They all have promised an end to the war but just how much of an "end" could be delivered has become something of a flash point.

Didn't voters elevate Democrats to majority status in Congress for the purpose of ending the war? Probably not as much as to punish Republicans for starting it. Aside from a hard-core segment of the party, it's hard to imagine that most primary voters won't recognize the difficult circumstances the next president will be walking into and allow a little leeway on the subject.

Yes, Clinton was the primary target for her opponents and most of them took at least one opportunity to try and chip away at her large lead in the polls. Edwards did so most aggressively and managed to take yesterday's Senate vote declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization and hint that Clinton's vote in favor was helping pave the way for a new war against Iran. Obama did little to insert himself into the fray and, judging by the instant punditry, hurt himself by not doing so. While Clinton did not turn in the kind of commanding performance debate watchers have come to expect, she didn't suffer any lasting damage either.

One of the most interesting moments came toward the end of the debate when Clinton seemed to be caught off guard on a question of torture. When informed that she and her husband appeared to have different positions on the topic of whether it is every acceptable for the U.S. to use torture she first tried to laugh it off. Then she said this: "I know very well that the president makes the decision. Everyone in the White House is there because of one person, the president, including the spouse of the president. And ultimately the president has to sift through everything that is recommended and make her decision. And what I believe is that it is the ultimate responsibility of a president to seek out a broad cross section of advisors who will have different point of view."

It was one of the most revealing statements yet as to how former President Clinton might fits into her presidency. Make no mistake, should Hillary Clinton win the nomination, this will become a major issue for the fall campaign. Never before has a former president returned to the White House as a spouse, of course, and the "two-for-one" theme he ran on in 1992 will take on entirely new dimensions. What to do with Bill? Clinton perhaps started answering that question last night.

A More Important Debate? While the dust settles on the Democratic debate, some of the Republican candidates will show up at Morgan State University in Baltimore tonight for a PBS debate hosted by Tavis Smiley. For Republicans, it's become a bigger than a debate as the party's top contenders are passing up the chance to appear at the historically black, urban university. Not attending: Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Fred Thompson and Tom Tancredo. Who will be there: Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul and Alan Keyes.

The perceived slight by the party's front-runners has sparked a debate. Former GOP chairman and President Bush's 2004 campaign manager Ken Mehlman, who dedicated a lot of effort to courting minority voters into the GOP, last week urged the candidates to reconsider their decision and other party figures have fretted about he message being sent. What message is that? Well, for former Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele, one of the GOP's top black figures, it's a personal one. "It's hard enough as a black Republican to stand up in the community and say, 'Trust me, these guys really do care,' and then, when given the opportunity to show that, these folks don't see the follow- through," Steele tells the New York Times.

More Joe-mentum? Joe Biden didn't have to wait long at last night's debate to crow about his big legislative win yesterday. Biden's plan to partition Iraq into three separate regions won Senate approval by a wide margin. While it's non-binding, Biden has managed to gain quite a following of support in all quarters for the plan he has touted for months on the campaign trail.

And this morning, Biden is greeted with some good press in the Des Moines Register with this lead: "Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden enjoyed a sweeping victory Wednesday with the U.S. Senate's passage of his much-touted plan for Iraq." Biden has of late pushed most all his chips into Iowa, hoping for a surprising showing that will allow him to go on. Stories like this won't hurt.

Around The Track

  • John McCain is set to go up with his first TV ads of the campaign, according to the New Hampshire Union-Leader. Ads on both radio and TV will be introduced in New Hampshire over the next few days and are expected to be biographical in nature. After skipping Iowa in 2000, McCain won the New Hampshire primary, scoring a big upset against George W. Bush. Since his campaign shake-up this summer, McCain has turned more and more toward the site of his past victory as a cure for his campaign ills. Does that mean Iowa is out of the picture for him once again?
  • What are Democratic candidates supposed to do when their national party has asked them the boycott campaigning in Florida because of their pushed-up primary date? Send their spouses, of course. The Miami Herald has the details.
  • Obama may have Oprah but Clinton has "Meathead." (for those who remember Rob Reiner only from "Spinal Tap," he once upon a time starred in "All In The Family." It was a sitcom. On TV. Really). Reiner will reportedly endorse Clinton today.
  • Fred Thompson, whose campaign is in need of some good news, was endorsed yesterday by 12 South Carolina state legislators yesterday. The southern candidate needs to find a state to make a stand and South Carolina seems a natural fit but if he can't make some noise in Iowa or New Hampshire will it be too late?
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