Before Thursday night’s battle among the Democratic presidential contenders, it was fairly clear what each needed to do in the debate to win over voters in the time remaining before next Tuesday’s primary.
Here’s an assessment of what the five major contenders should have done and what they actually did, with apologies to Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Rev. Al Sharpton, whose chances of winning the Democratic nomination seem prohibitively long.
What Dean needed to do: Show resolve in the face of an Iowa defeat, slipping poll numbers, and negative media coverage. Convey a sense of “I’ve looked defeat in the eye and didn’t blink.” New Hampshire likes an austere underdog, as Sen. Eugene McCarthy was in 1968 before his surprise strong showing here.
What Dean did: The former Vermont governor showed a bit of remorse over the screaming defiance of his Monday night concession speech.
He carefully defined himself as somebody who believes in social justice tempered by a concern for balanced budgets.
But he sounded awkward and wavering when reporter John DiStaso asked him about a statement he made in December in which he said he would have attacked Iraq if the United Nations had given “permission” to do so.
“I would not have used the word ‘permission’ nor is that what I meant. You know, my words are not always precise, but my meaning is very, very clear,” Dean replied.
Did he mean to say he should not have used the word “permission?” While giving his often-recited explanation of why he now thinks the war against Iraq was not necessary, he did not clarify what deference he would give as president to U.N. resolutions.
What he needed to do: Show mastery of domestic issues, or at least competence in dealing with them. By now, voters here in New Hampshire know all about his work in Bosnia.
What he did: Clark handled the details of a discussion of the Patriot Act and search-and-seizure provisions quite capably. But he begged the question: Have there been any violations of U.S. citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure due to actions carried out under the rubric of the Patriot Act?
Clark reverted to the 1950s advertising slogan language when he tried to explain why he was a Democrat. “The Democratic Party is the party of ideas,” he declared. “It is a party as broad as the Montana sky, we welcome everybody into this party and we care about people. That’s why I’m a Democrat and that’s why I want to be president: to help people."
Clark also seemed a bit slippery when asked about his endorsement by film director Michael Moore, who called Bush a “deserter” at a Clark campaign event. “He’s not the only person who said that,” Clark said, seeming to use hearsay as a kind of justification. But Clark also brushed off Moore’s comment: “It’s not relevant to me,” he insisted.
What he needed to do: Be the masterful front-runner. Act as if victory is certain, but be magnanimous and take nothing for granted.
What he did: Kerry did not attack Dean, Clark or any of his rivals. He directed his fire at President Bush, helping convey the illusion that he is already the Democratic nominee.
But as he did last spring, Kerry once again got tangled up in a convoluted justification of why he voted for the Iraq war resolution, contending that Bush did not have the “legitimacy and consent” of the American people. If a congressional resolution is not consent, then what is?
Yet Kerry also said something unexpected about campaign finance, given that a significant minority in Democratic and independent ranks supports restrictions on campaign spending.
Kerry pointed out that other than Dean, he was the only Democratic contender to opt of spending limits and matching funds, which means he could “raise extraordinary amounts of money” to run ads against Bush in the spring and summer if he is the party nominee.
It was a pragmatic and counterintuitive tactic: to boast of being the big money candidate.
What he needed to do: Stay positive. Sprinkle in references to his foreign policy work, such as on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
What he did: Prompted by Peter Jennings for his thoughts on America’s relationship to the Islamic world, Edwards skillfully held forth on his trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan and his consultation with leaders there.
Edwards also did something no other participant did: He took control of the debate by chiding the panel of questioners for concentrating on the candidates and ignoring poverty and other American social problems.
What he needed to do: Catapult himself back into the front pack of the race by dynamic rhetoric or a devastating riposte to another candidate, along the lines of Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” to Dan Quayle.
What he did: Lieberman delivered an earnest and at times gutsy defense of his vote for the Iraq war resolution. Despite boos from a few in the audience at one point, Lieberman stood his ground.
He had no Lloyd Bentsen moment and he refrained from attacking Dean as he has done in previous debates. But he also did not attack Clark, his rival for the moderate, hawkish independent voters in New Hampshire who can vote in the Democratic primary.