Analysis: Debate a Show of Cordiality

The Associated Press
Friday, April 27, 2007; 8:08 PM

ORANGEBURG, S.C. -- It was less of a debate and more like a polite first date where the Democratic presidential candidates wanted to avoid any fast moves that risk turning off voters.

Front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were on the receiving end of a couple jabs, but the Democrats vying for the White House were downright complimentary, calling each other by their first names more like friends than rivals.

Offered a chance to rebut Obama on his plan for Iraq, Clinton said: "I think that what Barack said is right." Asked who else on the stage could win against a Republican presidential candidate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden said: "I'm looking at a bunch of winners right here, number one. And whoever wishes for Hillary is making a big mistake."

Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd praised Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich for declaring his commitment to abortion rights. "What Dennis just said is extremely important," Dodd said.

In short, they mostly pulled their punches and played it safe in their first debate.

"No runs, no hits, no errors," said Democratic consultant Erik Smith. "Nobody made any significant mistake, but nobody distinguished themselves."

After their Thursday night face-off at South Carolina State University, the candidates planned to hang out another day in the state that holds the important second primary next January. They all were to attend the state party's biggest fundraiser Friday evening, then party together at a fish fry thrown by Rep. Jim Clyburn in a downtown Columbia parking garage.

The candidates spent most of their time in the 90-minute event broadcast live Thursday night on MSNBC explaining how they would lead the country and defending against their biggest criticisms.

Clinton said the fact that most of the public doesn't like her is actually a form of flattery because it shows she stands up for what she believes in. Obama, questioned about whether he's light on substance, laid out a three-point health care plan.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said even though he gets $400 hair cuts, he remembers what it was like when he was a kid and his father couldn't afford to pay for the family to eat at a pricey restaurant. And when the notoriously long-winded Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware was asked if he had the discipline to be a player on the world stage, he replied with uncharacteristic brevity. "Yes," was all he said to laughter in the hall with 850 viewers.

"The candidates did more testing of themselves and their own messages than against each other," said Democratic consultant Stephanie Cutter. "Very few issues separated them, and very few moments distinguished them. As these debates go on, that will change."

Their biggest target was President Bush. The candidates universally condemned the failures in Iraq and said they would bring troops home. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he would end the war on his first day as president, coupled with diplomatic efforts to rebuild the country.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Associated Press