Democratic Debate Final Analysis: Any Way You Slice It

Last night the last two Democratic presidential candidates standing squared off the University of Texas in Austin Texas in the first of two debates slated before the all important March 4th primaries.  You can read the liveblogging event we had here (Big thanks to Terry and Dynamic for joining in!), and you can check out the debate transcript here.

It was an interesting debate last night with the potential for at least a couple different interpretations, but any way you slice it, there was only one person walking out of that debate last night the winner.

As I mentioned early on in the liveblogging experience, this was the first debate during which Obama was the undisputed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.  This fact alone skews the dynamics a bit because if you were to put the debate in context, you see Hillary Clinton’s campaign fading with Senator Barack Obama coming on strong.  He leads in pledged delegates, he leads in momentum, and he’s won eleven contests in a row.  That’s a terrible situation for Hillary to be in, and Texas and Ohio have shifted from being her firewall to her last hope.

With that being said, this debate takes on a special significance for Hillary in that the onus was upon her to make something happen.  Obama could come out of this debate with a draw or even a slight loss so long as that loss was not a result of a gaffe on his part and still expect to see the momentum to continue on in his favor.  Hillary needed to stop him last night, or barring that, she had Tuesday night to give it a shot.

Unfortunately for her, the big KO did not come last night, and she actually did a little to hurt herself.

Now, as I said there are a couple ways you could look at last night’s debate; more specifically, it hinges upon whether or not you take into account “the moment”.  If you don’t address “the moment”, the debate was mostly a civil affair with both candidates making solid points.  Here, I think Obama really did do himself well in that he really focused on a lot of the criticism that he’s received lately about being all style and no substance, and turn it on its head.  Indeed, for much of the debate, if you had no previous knowledge of the race prior to and were forced to pick which candidate was the style over substance candidate, it would have to go to Hillary who was much smoother in her delivery, yet had a tendancy to dodge questions on a more frequent basis.

Meanwhile, Obama often times sounded wonky, though I must admit that this was his most polished performance yet.  So through the most of the debate, as I said, you had solid performances by both candidates, a lot of positive moments for both candidates, and Iwould have to admit that Hillary had the big closer and she nailed it.  Some, especially those who have been following the campaign for quite some time, will get turned off by her speech at the end because it may have sounded contrived, but for those undecideds who are tuning in late, it will have left a great impression.

But the problem is a solid debate with both sides performing well and making good points is simply not what Clinton needed to walk away with a win.  She had to put a lot of daylight between herself and Obama, and that simply didn’t happen last night.  The clearest opportunity for her came during the Health Care portion and the Foreign Policy portion of the debate, yet Obama stood toe to toe with her and prevented her from dominating.  Thus, her performance is unlikely to slow Obama’s momentum, and gets chalked up as a slight loss for her, and a slight win for him.

Remember, this was all without what I’m calling the moment of the night, though, which really changes the dynamics of how the debate went.  To view the moment click here.  In this moment we see a perfect analogy of what has happened during the campaign as a whole.

This is how it went down.  Obama was asked to address the charges of “plagiarism” that his campaign has had to weather recently and he simply couldn’t have answered the question better, pointing out the absurdity of the claim given the circumstances, and gaining some appreciative laughter when he called the attack characteristic of the “silly season of politics”.  The entire discussion on Obama’s part was incredibly well received broken up several times by applause with the mood meter in the high seventies.

Then Hillary was asked to respond and she initially was getting a decent response to her words, but then she pulled out the line, “That’s not change we can believe in, that’s change we can Xerox.”  The audience fell silent, the mood meter dropped to the low thirties, and the audience started to boo.

Taking everything else into contest, it’s really difficult to say someone won a debate when they are booed.  Last night Taylor Marsh said that it was the line of the evening and would be repeated all day today in the media.  She’s right, but I think she missed the point.

Not only was she clearly booed for her comments and really had the audience against her for a little bit after that, but the exchange was so indicative of what we have seen in this campaign thus far.  Following the Xerox line, Clinton launched into a tirade where she continued to dig herself deeper into a hole, and Obama would have been more than justified going after her for it.  He could have reinforced his criticism against negative politics, but I think he actually got the better of her by moving on and instead of addressing the negativity coming from her, addressed the critiques she made on Health Care instead.

The point could not be missed; Clinton was the mudslinger, and Obama was trying to elevate the debate.  And in a contest where the narration has been largely driven by who is the negative campaigner, Obama siezed Hillary’s gaffe and made the best of it.

Without that moment, it was a virtual tie which would result in Obama keeping his advantages and frontrunner status going into Texas and Ohio.  With that moment, Hillary was exposed for being the dirty campaigner, and lost badly.

In this manner, her final response was her only saving grace, and the one moment of the night that kept the debate from being a debacle for her.  And yet, as I’ll address in my next post, even that closing statement comes with some serious pitfalls for Senator Clinton.

In summation, it was a good night, without “the moment” it was one in which both candidates did well, but that doesn’t matter.  You can’t look at this debate without the moment, and especially from the Clinton standpoint, you can’t look at this debate as a positive unless she walks away with a clear win, which she absolutely did not.

Unless she finds some special magic trick to pull out in Tuesday’s debate, this nomination race is going to continue to look ugly for her.

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