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The Arizona debate
Clinton comes out the clear winner

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 10, 2003 -- Nine Democratic candidates for President took the stage to debate in Phoenix, Arizona, Thursday night, and the clear winner was . . . Bill Clinton.

First because, as Congressman Richard Gephardt crystallized for the first time in this campaign, the Clinton economy is the Democratsí best weapon against Bush. "I led the fight for the Clinton economic program in 1993, and it created 33 million new jobs," Gephardt said. "We know how to do this."

Secondly, as the candidates ran through another 90 minutes of improved but still mildly awkward and stiff rhetoric, it was obvious that the Comeback Kid could roll out of bed with a hangover and still wipe the floor with these guys.

The two most potentially Clintonesque candidates, Governor Howard Dean and General Wesley Clark, both failed to effectively deflect attacks they knew full well were coming. As a result, the race looks more and more wide open.

Clark took the worst of it, as CNN journalist Candy Crowley helped Dean and the other top candidates -- Senators Joseph Lieberman, John Kerry, and John Edwards -- attack Clark. Clark knew he would have to answer for previously praising the Bush administration, and turning only recently to the Democratic Party, yet when the question came he rambled incoherently to Crowley ("I want this country to be successful and I donít believe we should pay more taxes than we have to in this country, but this administration didnít have a plan, it doesnít have a good record, and things have changed radically since 2001") and put the most damaging accusations into his own mouth ("I did go to speak at a Republican fundraiser [in 2001] -- I was nonpartisan at the time"; "I worked with Don Cheney and Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld"). And when he finished explaining that in May of 2001 he hadnít yet seen signs that the Bushies were bad news, Kerry zinged him with the reminder that Senator Jim Jeffords had seen enough to defect from the Republican Party that very month.

Dean didnít do as poorly, but he also stumbled with the attack that he knew was coming -- his support eight years ago for cuts to Medicare and Social Security. When CNN moderator Judy Woodruff first lobbed the question at him, Dean, like Clark, seemed inexplicably ill-prepared. "Iím a strong supporter of Medicare and Social Security," he all but pouted. "What we are going to do is change those programs so they can be better." Change Social Security? Not what you want to say to those crucial 55-and-older Democrats. (You know, the ones who actually vote in primaries.)

Dean also provided grist for future grilling when he spoke of Iraq as "a security risk where one did not exist before, when Saddam Hussein was there." His point may have been valid, but you canít pine for Saddam and hope to get elected. And if you canít get through a debate without providing two new pieces of ammunition against you for the next one, youíre going to have a tough time maintaining any momentum. (Dean also sounds awfully full of himself when he says things like "Our campaign is changing the political system in this country," and "Iíve given the 50 percent of Americans who donít vote a reason to vote again." Try waiting until someone has actually cast a vote for you to declare your ballot-box revolution a fait accompli, Governor.)

So Dean and Clark came out looking like two among, rather than above, the crowd. Did anyone rise from the pack? Not really, although Lieberman was at his best so far, Gephardt continues to debate strongly, and Kerry got off some good lines.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the debate was a subtle one. For the final segment, the nine candidates sat on chairs and fielded questions from the audience. All eight men removed their jackets during the break before the segment began, but only Clark thought to roll up his sleeves. You could almost see the light bulbs over the other candidatesí heads: Ooh, I should have thought of that! By the end of the segment Dean, Edwards, Gephardt and Congressman Dennis Kucinich had their sleeves rolled just like the General. Meanwhile Clark, Gephardt, Lieberman, and Reverend Al Sharpton all answered their first questions seated; then Kerry stood up and walked to the front edge of the stage to answer one. Again the light bulbs: Ooh, I should have done that! The candidates all made their remaining responses on two feet. (Except former Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, who tried to stand and nearly fell on her face.)

Kerry might have gotten the standing bit right, but he picked an awful time to crack a joke and guffaw about the Red Sox: in the middle of a disabled stroke victimís heartbreaking tale of spending months without medication so that her family could eat.

Itís still early, so itís okay that the candidates are having trouble timing their jokes, reciting prepared responses, thinking on the fly, standing, dressing, and connecting with voters generally. But it does make you realize how very good Bill Clinton was at all of this.

Issue Date: October 10, 2003
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