Saturday night’s back-to-back presidential debates at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., offered party loyalists an excellent chance to imagine the debates this autumn when the White House will be on the line.
For Democrats, it was tempting to consider which one of these Democrats would best be able to hold his or her own in a debate with the GOP candidate next fall.
Many Republicans, likewise, were led to wonder which of the contenders seemed the most skilled and self-assured for the coming battles against Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama or former Sen. John Edwards.
In the Republican debate that led off Saturday night’s twin-bill, the stars of the event were Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who traded punch and counter-punch.
Give Romney credit for taking what seemed a risky and unpopular stance: standing up for American pharmaceutical companies.
It showed either enormous foolhardiness — if voters are in a mood to blame drug companies for high prices — or self-confidence.
Romney: Drug firms 'not the bad guys'
After McCain attacked the drug firms, Romney said with a note of reproof in his voice, “Don’t make the pharmaceutical companies into the big bad guys.”
“They are,” McCain shot back.
A few minutes later when McCain and Romney scrapped over whether the Senate bill McCain supported last year would have permitted amnesty for illegal immigrants, McCain finally told Romney, “You can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads, and it still won’t be true.”
It was a bruising blow. And it did not seem to make Romney any more sympathetic a figure under attack when he said testily, “Is there a way to make this about issues and not about personal attacks?”
Later when the talk turned to Obama and his rhetoric as the candidate of “change,” McCain alluded to Romney’s shifts on abortion and other issues when he sarcastically remarked, “You are the candidate of change.”
McCain mocking Romney
Rarely has a presidential candidate seemed to relish so much mocking his opponent.
The reaction shots caught by the ABC TV cameras showed that McCain — smiling with a mixture of malice and glee — seemed to be having a fine time in his fight with Romney.
But Romney seemed upset and beleaguered in some of the reaction shots.
Did McCain’s acerbic performance Saturday night run the risk of voters’ thinking him too harsh and vindictive? Or do GOP voters want a candidate for the fall who will attack as mercilessly as McCain did?
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said of McCain after the debate, “There’s a chance that many voters may look at him as the sneering candidate.”
One of the strengths of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in past debates is that he seemed self-aware, responding to questions in what seemed an authentic way and not reciting memorized talking points.
With the Romney-McCain struggle dominating the event, Huckabee played a lesser role Saturday night.
Huckabee praises Obama
When asked how he might go up against Obama in a fall campaign, Huckabee lavished praise on Obama.
“He is a likeable person who has excited people about wanting to vote who have not voted in the past,” Huckabee said.
But his praise was at odds with his claim that he and Obama had “substantial differences” on taxes, Second Amendment gun rights and on “the sanctity of life,” meaning abortion, and on marriage for same-sex couples.
The unasked question: Does Huckabee think all these new voters whom Obama is attracting actually agree with Huckabee on abortion and gun rights, or with Obama?
McCain’s answer to the how-do-you-oppose-Obama question was more straightforward: “Senator Obama does not have the national security experience and background to lead this nation. We are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century, radical Islamic extremism.”
The most assertive performer in the Democratic debate that followed was Clinton, who fiercely defended herself from criticism from Edwards and Obama.
At the moment that seemed to set the tone for the debate, Edwards played the role of Obama’s partner in going after Clinton.
Clinton pointed out that Obama’s voting record was not consistent with his previous statements about, for example, the Patriot Act.
Edwards said, “The one thing I do not argue with him (Obama) about is he believes deeply in change. And I believe deeply in change. And any time you're fighting for that — I mean, I didn't hear these kinds of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead. Now that she's not, we hear them. And any time you speak out for change, this is what happens.”
Clinton turned combative, “Now, wait a minute. I'm going to respond to this.”
But Clinton's voice has a tendency to turn metallic and harsh when she raises her emotional pitch, and so it was at that crucial moment on Saturday night.
“A couple of times she came close to a meltdown,” commented Edwards spokesman Chris Kofinis in the spin room after the debate.
Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., who has endorsed Obama, called his performance one of “a man of true graciousness. ... The way people command is not necessarily with harsh attacks and getting shrill; the way people command is with a a sense of self-confidence and the ability to respect your opponent. ... What Senator Obama showed tonight was that extraordinary quality he has of self-possession, self-confidence without arrogance.”
Linking Obama to Cheney
Clinton pollster Mark Penn argued after the debate that his candidate had effectively explained the parts of Obama’s record he was omitting: “He didn’t tell you that he voted for Dick Cheney’s energy bill.”
He added, “A minority of people voted for Senator Obama in the Iowa caucuses. He repeated several times how important it was that he won In Iowa. Well, this is New Hampshire, and New Hampshire voters are going to take their own look at the various candidates here.”
The question for Democratic voters is: What kind of candidate do you want for the autumn battle? The choice — unless New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson makes an unexpected surge — is between the combative Clinton, the more mellow and serene Obama, or the emotional Edwards, who seemed to bring more passion to the event when he talked about his blue-collar father than did his rivals.