Debate Final Analysis: Best Debate; Obama Wins

Last night, the last two remaining candidates met head to head in the final Democratic debate heading into Super Tuesday.  It was an affair that had a high potential for fireworks but instead turned into one of the most civil debates of the season, one where both challengers displayed an amazing grasp of the issues.  Interestingly enough, the civil tone of the debate just may start healing at least some of the gaping wounds opened up within the party, and for this I credit the leadership qualities of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton–if only the rest of us in their respective camps could be so civil.

Before we begin with the final analysis, I wanted to thank my friends for joining me and helping to make last night an even better experience; Mark, from Publius Endures who has his own thoughtful analysis of the debate up (In fact I would call it a must read), Terry from Positively Barack with whom I could go through all the gut twisting highs and lows given her own propensity towards Obama, and Dynamic from purerave who is bringing politics to a younger generation and is doing great work there (God, I’m old enough to start talking about a younger generation…).  Also, if you missed last night’s debate, and I’m telling you now last night’s debate was not one to miss, you can read the transcript here, and you can check out our liveblogging of the event here (we mixed it up a little, with me doing a more traditional liveblogging in the main body of the post, but also with an open thread in comments, definitely a good time).

So let’s take a look at what happened, and how it’s going to affect the race.

As has been said, the first most remarkable thing about this debate last night was the tone.  It was civil, and at times outright chummy.  Even when the two candidates did go on the offensive, they did so in a pleasant way, prefering to throw soft jabs as opposed to wide haymakers.  This undoubtedly as a result of the bad blood coming out of the ugly South Carolina contest.

And for the most part this was a strong substantive debate, the kind of debate where you can actually come out and say that it is the Democratic party that came out the winner by having on display two strong and well versed candidates.  The relatively free format of the debate allowed for sound bites, of course we can’t have a debate without those, but it also allowd the candidates to come out and get a little wonky and add some depth to their typical campaign rhetoric and here they both did extremely well.

And across the board, it’s hard not to call this debate at least close to a tie.  Marc Ambinder gives Barack the first half of the debate while ceding portions of the second half to Hillary, Josh Marshall goes the other way, and Andrew Sullivan calls the whole thing for Obama.  One thing all of them agreed upon along with us here was that on Iraq Obama clearly had the upper hand, a fact of no small significance considering it still places high on many Democratic voters’ priority list as well as the fact that the subject took up nearly a quarter of the debate.

Hillary eked out Obama on Health Insurance, and I thought they were both even on immigration with Obama scoring the most points, but also stumbling pretty heavily on a question about his claim to have worked on a more humane program in the past.  Also, Hillary was a little more polished than Obama and arguably had the better soundbites of the night.  But in no other area was there more significant difference than on Iraq and foreign policy in general and as I mentioned in the liveblogging last night, it is rather amazing that at this point in the campaign, Obama is the Foreign Policy candidate, a boon for Obama given that the Executive branch has far more latitude in that arena.

Thus, on the merits of the debate itself, it is for the most part a tie, but Obama’s performance during the foreign policy portion of the debate gives him what I believe is a clear win.

Another important thing to take note is the focus both candidates took in respect to the Republican party.  Hillary’s cross party jabs were aimed mostly at Bush while Obama did himself a great favor by showing that he is ready, willing, and very much able to stand toe to toe against both John McCain and Mitt Romney after successfully taking swings at both of them.

But debates don’t happen in vacuums, and I think this clip courtesy Crooks & Liars accurately puts it in context.  Neither candidate did each other much harm, and in many ways both did themselves quite a bit of good.  I don’t think any hard set supporters of each candidate will change their mind based on last night.  However, last night’s debate was the first real good look that a lot of people will have had of the candidates and this does not tip in Hillary’s favor.

For one, just having Barack on stage as an equal and having him perform as an equal helps to elevate him in the minds of voters.  For those supporting Hillary based for the most part on name recognition, last night gave them a clear and solid alternative.  Not all of them are going to take that alternative, but I think some of them will.  Barack Obama is no longer a name they hear on a telephone poll, but an actual person and one that I think a lot of them will like.

I wouldn’t expect this debate to have a dramatic effect on the polls leading up to Super Tuesday, but I do think that both candidates will get a bit of a bump.  I just happen to think that Obama is poised to receive a slightly larger bump due to his owning the Foreign Policy portion of the debate, and because as the underdog, showing that he could go toe to toe with Hillary while at the same time showing that he’s already focusing on going after the Republican nominee really helps make the case that he’s ready for prime time.

Of course, only time will tell.

3 Responses to “Debate Final Analysis: Best Debate; Obama Wins”

  1. Jane Smoot says:

    Can’t agree more. Obama clear win on foreign policy and has demonstrated his grasp of hard domestic issues and ability to solve them as opposed to Hillary who can talk about plans but have no chance of getting bipartisan support. I was undecided before the debate, very conflicted, I must say. I am now very comfortable voting for Obama as I am convinced he stands a better chance of beating McCain.

  2. Thanks Jane, and it’s good to hear your opinion. That’s where this debate really matters undecideds. I do think Obama’s going to pick up some support from the name recognition voters for Clinton. But the big story is the undecideds, and the thing I really like about last night’s debate is that Obama clearly defined himself as a reasonable alternative to Clinton.

    Also, as I’m fond of pointing out, the debate is onlyhalf the battle, the other half is press coverage and spin in the aftermath, and from what I’m seeing right now, Obama’s definitely winning in that regard.

  3. South Georgia Mark says:

    Hillary looked like an oggling teenager in love (on the cut away shots when Obama was speaking). Her smile at times looked big and plastic sometimes, and other times very sincere. Obama looked young, sexy and intimate. Overall a very good performance for both candidates. Hillary droned on with health care issues too long at one point. Obama scored with his “lots of experience with bad judgement” line. I am an Obama supporter, I don’t see how this debate could have been any better for Obama, short of a major screwup for Hillary.

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