Anyone harboring great expectations that the South Carolina Democratic presidential debate would dramatically change the dynamics of this campaign almost certainly left disappointed. Those who tuned into the mass-media event looking for a glimpse at a distinctive field and an entertaining show, however, were fully rewarded.
In the wake of a 90-minute debate on the campus of South Carolina State University, even the campaign aides sent out to "spin" the press were reluctant to declare all-out victory, satisfied instead to tout their outstanding opinions of the respective candidates' performance. But there were subtleties in the debate that didn't shake up the race but may have returned it to where it was three months ago, with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton holding a clearer edge over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
South Carolina Democratic chair Joe Erwin, like nearly every Democrat in the area, refused to make judgments about winners and losers, but hinted at some of the differences on display. "As time goes by, these candidates establish themselves as individual brands," Erwin said, "and that will make it easier for Democrats in South Carolina and around the nation to make a choice."
Some of the biggest differences in those brands were displayed by the two candidates under the most intense scrutiny. In polls and fundraising totals, Obama has closed the gap with the once prohibitive front-running Clinton in recent weeks. But Thursday's performances put into focus the differences in their political experience.
Clinton, if not inspiring, turned in a nearly error-free performance. Forcefully advocating an end to the war in Iraq, she also came across as strong on national defense. Asked what she might do in the event of a hypothetical terrorist attack, Clinton responded, "If we are attacked and we can determine who was behind that attack, and if there were nations that supported or gave material aid to those who attacked us, I believe we should quickly respond."
The New York Senator was self-effacing on issues such as the failed health care reform she pushed as first lady and the number of mistakes she has made throughout her career in public life. Clinton even reached across the aisle, saying "we need Republican support" to achieve the Democratic goal of leaving Iraq. The solid performance left Clinton aides like spokesperson Mo Elleithee simply repeating mantras such as, "Time and time again, she showed that she would be ready to lead."
For his part, Obama seemed unsteady at times. In contrast to Clinton's aggressive response when asked the same question about a hypothetical terrorist attack, Obama said, "The first thing we'd have to do is make sure that we've got an effective emergency response." He continued his answer by discussing the quality of intelligence and the need to not "alienate" the international community.
As if recognizing a failure to project strength, Obama returned to the question when answering a completely different one on the environment. "One thing that I do have to go back on, on this issue of terrorism. We have genuine enemies out there that have to be hunted down," he quickly said before then getting into a feisty exchange with the two fringe candidates representing the pacifist wing of the party — Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Sen. Mike Gravel.