Much is at stake in tonight’s Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia, the 24th in the past year. Among the questions to be answered as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama face each other on ABC (7 p.m., Channel 5):
Will Clinton continue to go after Obama about his comments about small town voters “clinging” to guns or religion because they become “bitter” during difficult economic times? Or will she back off and let the network journalists do the talking? Will Obama be able to explain in front of a national television audience that he is not an elitist or anti-working class? Can Clinton continue to hold a lead in economically stressed Pennsylvania and win Tuesday’s primary? And no matter what happens at the debate and in the primary, can Clinton catch Obama?
John Harwood writes in The New York Times that “the two dozen televised showdowns have always given a distorted glimpse of the nomination fight, which plays out in state after state on much less visible levels. But the debates offer the clearest national focus, and that means Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton must make a decision: mount a feisty new assault on Senator Barack Obama, or present a more congenial face to the public.”
Trailing in the national polls and in the delegate count, “Mrs. Clinton finds herself like a basketball team trailing at game’s end and having to watch precious seconds tick off the clock. That leaves some Democratic observers predicting a serene and civil performance on her part, rather than the combative approach advocated by her chief strategist, Mark Penn, before he was ousted from that post a week ago.”
On the other hand, Harwood says, “by effectively exploiting Mr. Obama’s remarks… Mrs. Clinton could reach every group she is trying to reach: swing voters in Pennsylvania, Indiana and the other remaining primary states; uncommitted super delegates with doubts about Mr. Obama’s ability to win in the general election; and the news media.”
Not backing down
Despite attacks from Clinton and Republican Sen. John McCain over Obama’s remarks about small-town voters made April 6 at a San Francisco fundraiser, Obama has not backed down from the criticism. When they called him “out of touch,” Obama responded, according Avi Zenilman and Ben Smith on Politico.com:
” ‘Out of touch? Out of touch? I mean, John McCain — it took him three tries to finally figure out that the home foreclosure crisis was a problem,’ he said, while also criticizing Hillary Rodham Clinton for her vote on to make declaring personal bankruptcy harder.
“‘She says I’m out of touch?’
“The response was signature Obama: Attack first, sort out the details later, if at all. No apology, no immediate regret, just a sharp counterattack. For a candidate sometimes mocked for being too soft to win a political fistfight, he has shown an uncanny ability to take a punch and then rear back and deliver one in return. When Obama responds this way, it leaves him open to charges that he’s undermining his so-called politics of hope. But, showing remarkable dexterity, he has a knack for using these flare-ups to pivot back to the central theme of his candidacy: that politics is broken, and he knows how to change it.”
Obama did apologize if his remarks offended voters and has explained that he was not criticizing people who are religious (which he considers himself to be) or who are hunters. He also had some fun at his opponent’s expense, according to Politico.
” ‘She’s running around talking about how this is an insult to sportsmen, how she values the Second Amendment, she’s talking like she’s Annie Oakley!’ he said at a stop in Pennsylvania. ‘Hillary Clinton’s out there like she’s on the duck blind every Sunday, she’s packin’ a six shooter! C’mon! She knows better. That’s some politics being played by Hillary Clinton. I want to see that picture of her out there in the duck blinds.'”
Damage to party
But it’s unlikely ABC’s news folks, George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson, will let him walk away from his San Francisco comments so cleverly. They might look at another piece in Politico.com by Mike Allen in which he lists 12 reasons why Obama’s comments about small-town people being “bitter” about their economic conditions will hurt him and the Democratic Party.
“This is a potential turning point for Obama’s campaign — an episode that could be even more damaging than the attention to remarks by his minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, since this time the controversial words came out of his own mouth.” Allen argues that Obama’s comments let Clinton “off the mat at a time when even some of her top supporters had begun to despair about her prospects.” In addition, the remarks play into both Clinton’s and McCain’s attempts to characterize Obama as an elitist. Allen also says that making the statement in San Francisco rather than in Pennsylvania was a mistake. “If you are going to say something that makes you sound like a clueless liberal, don’t say it in San Francisco. Obama’s views might have been received very differently if he had expressed them in public to Pennsylvania voters, saying he understood and could alleviate their frustrations.”
And looking ahead to tonight’s debate, Allen writes: “So Clinton has the maximum opportunity to keep a spotlight on the issue. Besides sex, little drives the news and opinion industry more than race, religion, culture and class. So as far as chances the chattering-class will perpetuate the issue, Obama has hit the jackpot.”
In one of the ironies of the campaign, Arianna Huffington, whose Huffington Post broke the Obama San Francisco story, writes that it’s “Hillary Clinton, adopting the frames, lies, stereotypes and destructive clichés long embraced by the likes of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. She has clearly decided that the road to victory runs through scorched earth. The question is, if she succeeds, what kind of Party will she be left to lead? She’s burning down the village to save it — or to prove that she would make the best fire chief. But the village won’t be saved; only one house will be left standing. A house with room for just two occupants. Hill and Bill.”
This campaign is still pretty interesting and engaging. Tune in to episode 24 tonight.
Doug Stone is director of College Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College.