By Lloyd Nelson
HANOVER, N.H., 09/26/07 — Just minutes after political pundits
criticized him for not attacking Democratic front-runner Hillary
Clinton more sharply, Sen. Barack Obama threw some jabs at her during
Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate at Dartmouth College.
But he did not appear to deliver the punch he needed.
The debate comes at a sensitive point in the campaign. Earlier in the
day a poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center revealed
Clinton has built a 23-point lead over Obama and a 31-point lead over
Senator John Edwards in the state.
On his show “Hardball,” which aired from the Dartmouth campus just
prior to the debate, host Chris Matthews asserted that Obama needed a
strong showing against Clinton to help close the gap. The comments of
a focus group of Dartmouth students just after the debate suggested he
did not get it.
That isn’t to say Obama didn’t try. When Clinton described her battle
for universal health care as lonely, Obama responded:
“If it was lonely for Hillary, part of the reason it was lonely,
Hillary, was because you closed the door to a lot of potential allies
in that process. At the time, 80 percent of Americans already wanted
universal health care, but they didn’t feel like they were let into
the process.”
Still- his attacks seemed to fall short of the call to arms pundits
and some Obama supporters were looking for, especially in regards to
the war in Iraq. Once again, Obama passed on a chance to take a shot
at Clinton, who voted for the war, when moderator Tim Russert asked
the candidates about troop withdrawal in Iraq.
Instead, he in so many words agreed with her that it would be
impossible to promise that all troops, including those needed to
protect American personnel, would be out of the country by the end of
his first term as president.
Obama, analysts acknowledge, is in a tight spot. He has run his
campaign on the principle of a new type of politics, what he calls
“the politics of hope.” To attack Clinton outright could undermine his
claim to be the leader of a new kind of politics, a candidate who can
work with others to find solutions. But to refuse to attack might cost
him the nomination.
This time, Obama opted to take subtle swipes at Clinton. He talked
about “turning the page” in order “to get over the special
interest-driven politics we have become accustomed to,” an indirect
reference to Clinton.
In contrast, former Sen. of North Carolina John Edwards, running third
in the New Hampshire poll, pushed Clinton hard on a variety of issues,
including the Iraq war.
“I heard Senator Clinton say on Sunday that she wants to continue
combat missions in Iraq,” said Edwards. “To me, that’s a continuation
of the war. I do not think we should continue combat missions in
Sen. Joseph Biden also got in on the action, questioning whether or
not Clinton would be able to work with Republicans to reach important
compromises on issues like health care.
“I’m not suggesting it’s Hillary’s fault,” Biden said. “I think it’s a
reality that it’s more difficult, because there’s a lot of very good
things that come with all the great things that President Clinton did,
but there’s also a lot of stuff that comes back.”
For her part, Clinton remained poised throughout, even when Russert
asked her whether she would allow an exception to the ban on torture
in order to gain necessary knowledge to protect the American people
from an imminent threat.
“It cannot be American policy, period,” she said.
Russert then informed her that it was her husband, William Jefferson
Clinton, who created the scenario on his show a year earlier.
Clinton paused but responded sharply, “Well, he’s not standing here right now.”
When Russert pressed Clinton asking if there was a disagreement
between the couple, Clinton offered a sly smile. “Well, I’ll have to
talk to him later.”
Wednesday night’s debate featured eight democratic candidates,
including Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Biden, Sen. Chris Dodd, Rep. Dennis
Kucinich, former Sen. Mike Gravel and Gov. Bill Richardson.