Democratic candidates Sen. Barack Obama and John Edwards sharply challenged Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candor, consistency and judgment Tuesday in a televised debate that underscored her front-runner status two months before the first presidential primary votes.
Obama, the Illinois senator, began immediately, saying Clinton has changed her positions on the North American Free Trade Agreement, torture policies and the Iraq war. Leadership, he said, does not mean “changing positions whenever it’s politically convenient.”
According to an poll of likely caucus-goers in Iowa conducted Oct. 17 through 24 by the University of Clinton and Obama are locked in a two-way heat in the top spots, with the New York senator leading at 28.9 percent, followed by Obama with 26.6 percent and Edwards with 20.0 percent.
Obama, who had promised to step up his attacks on Clinton, blasted her after she refused to directly answer a challenge from the debate’s co-moderator, Tim Russert, to release to the public all the papers on her health care proposal she exchanged with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, during her tenure as First Lady.
“I’m glad that Hillary [used] the phrase, ‘Turn the page,’ but this is an example of not turning the page.” Obama said. He emphasized that after “one of the most secretive administrations in history” a need for transparency was crucial.
Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, was even sharper at times, saying Clinton “defends a broken system that’s corrupt in Washington, D.C.” He stood by his earlier claim that she has engaged in “doubletalk.”
Clinton, standing between the two men, largely shrugged off the remarks and defended her positions. She has been the focus of Republican candidates’ “conversations and consternation,” she said, because she is leading in the polls.
She said she has specific plans on Social Security, diplomacy and health care. “I have been standing against the Republicans, George Bush and Dick Cheney,” she said, “and I will continue to do so, and I think Democrats know that.”
Obama’s efforts appeared to bear fruit.
In an MSNBC.com poll taken immediately after the debate, 27 percent of nearly 22,000 respondents said Obama “stood out from the pack,” versus Clinton’s 23 percent and Edwards’ 19 percent. Twenty-nine percent said Obama “showed the most leadership qualities,” versus Clinton’s 26 percent and Edwards’ 15 percent. Twenty-nine percent said Obama was “the most convincing candidate,” while Clinton got 23 percent and Edwards polled at 18 percent.
Clinton got top spots in the MSNBC poll asking “Who had the most rehearsed answers?” and “Who avoided the questions?” She got 59 and 70 percent respectively, while Obama had 16 and 14 percent.
But a poll on YouPoll.com asking respondents who they believed won the debate, Clinton received 31 percent; Obama received 30 percent; Edwards got 12 percent, with Sen. Joe Biden and Rep. Dennis Kucinich tied at 11 percent.
Peter C. Groff, a Colorado state senator, publisher of Blackpolicy.org and executive director of the Center for African American Policy at the University of Denver, said Obama stepping up his attacks on Clinton is a calculated strategy that could have repercussions — particularly as a black man criticizing a white woman.
“It’s a plan of attack that was certain to happen sooner or later, particularly as we get closer to the primaries,” Groff told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
“But, Obama has to be very careful with that approach,” he added. “Despite the media sharks and pundits smelling blood in the water and pressing his campaign to take the offensive, he can’t attack a woman the same way he can attack a man.”
“I believe that he’s somewhat sensitive to this,” Groff said, “and, he has to be extremely careful how aggressive he is with what could determine his electoral fate amongst many white voters. So, there has to be a balance. He could maintain such a balance by keeping a policy focus, rather than a focus that appears too personal.”
Clinton defended her Senate vote in favor of designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. Obama, Edwards and others have said Bush could interpret the measure as congressional approval for a military attack.
Edwards caustically challenged Clinton’s claim that she stands up to the Bush administration. “So the way to do that is to vote yes on a resolution that looks like it was written literally by the neocons?” he said.
“In my view, rushing to war — we should not be doing that — but we shouldn’t be doing nothing,” Clinton said. “And that means we should not let them acquire nuclear weapons, and the best way to prevent that is a full court press on the diplomatic front.”
Clinton also was the main focus during a discussion of the Iraq war. Again, Edwards leveled the toughest charges against the New York senator.
“If you believe that combat missions should be continued in Iraq” without a timetable for withdrawal, Edwards said, “then Senator Clinton is your candidate.” Edwards vowed to have all combat troops out of Iraq “in my first year in office.”
Clinton replied forcefully, saying “I stand for ending the war in Iraq, bringing our troops home.” She added, however, that “it is going to take time,” and some troops must remain to fight al-Qaida in Iraq.
“I don’t know how you pursue al-Qaida without engaging them in combat,” she said.
Edwards, drawing a link between Iraq and Iran, pressed on. “What I worry about is, if Bush invades Iran six months from now, I mean, are we going to hear: ‘If only I had known then what I know now?'” He was alluding to comments Clinton has made about her 2002 vote to authorize military action against Saddam Hussein.
Michelle Bernard, a black conservative and president of the Independent Women’s Forum, said Americans deserve forward-thinking leadership.
“Too much time in these debates is spent looking backwards,” Bernard told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “The democratic candidates in particular spend too much time focusing on decisions that have been made in the past.”
“Whether it is the war in Iraq or our nation’s overgrown budget, it is not enough to complain about the Bush administration and the state we are in,” she said. “All of the candidates need to offer a positive vision that shows where they want to take the country and how they will get us there. The American public wants something to vote for and the candidates need to give us something more than empty rhetoric.”
During the debate, some candidates expressed frustration that most of the questions were directed to Clinton, Obama and Edwards. Seventeen minutes into the debate, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich had yet to get a question and blurted out, “Is this a debate here?” Minutes later, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson threw up his hands in protest that he hadn’t been called on either and exchanged a frustrated glance with Kucinich.
It was the Democrats’ first debate in a month, and during that time Clinton has solidified her position as the front-runner in national polls and taking a slight lead in fundraising.
Obama has criticized her for failing to explain how she would save Social Security and for a vote on Iran. Edwards has turned to questions of honesty and integrity, areas where polling shows voters are divided on Clinton.
The Clinton campaign on Tuesday posted videos of Obama and Edwards in the past saying they would campaign on hope, not tearing down their opponents, next to news reports of their criticisms of her.
So how’s Obama doing in these debates?
“He’s doing fair,” Groff said. “One thing to consider is that Obama still has to find a way to manage the soundbite. He appears to have so much on his mind that he’s having trouble organizing thoughts into clear, crisp and succinct sentences.”
“He’s a great policy thinker with solid ideas, but does that translate into simple language for the “common folk? Is he connecting? Overall, Obama’s problem isn’t really him versus Clinton in the debate. It’s him versus everyone else since it’s difficult for Obama to distinguish himself from so many other talented and articulate voices crowding the stage.”