Palmetto Debate: Long Gone and Already Forgotten

by Stuart Rothenberg May 7, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

While there was a lot of buildup to the Democrats’ presidential debate in South Carolina, it proved what I have been arguing repeatedly for months: Most of the early happenings soon will fade into distant memory and have little impact on the race for the Democratic nomination.

The lack of a decisive development in Orangeburg, S.C., doesn’t mean that political reporters should stop paying attention to events such as the South Carolina Democratic debate, that political commentators should stop writing or speaking about early activities, or that political junkies should cease paying attention to the daily comings and goings of political candidates. Covering a campaign means establishing a record of its daily happenings, and every once in a while, something important actually happens.

While most of the post-debate analysis concluded that former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and current Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich looked so extreme that they helped the rest of the field look moderate and reasonable, nobody said the obvious: The extremes often can color the public’s perception of the two parties. Viewed this way, having Gravel and Kucinich rant that nobody is threatening the United States and that it is never necessary to use force internationally plays into the longtime stereotype of Democrats as the party of weakness.

Democrats have spent the past few years proving to the American public that the party is tough on terrorism and that Democrats aren’t anti-defense or anti-military, and the party has, finally, succeeded in changing that perception. The last thing Democrats need is a couple of loose cannons on national television who sound as if the world isn’t a dangerous place and everything would be fine if we all simply hugged each other.

Luckily for Democrats, the South Carolina debate was watched primarily by political insiders and activists, most of whom already know which candidate they are supporting for president. So few, if any, opinions were formed or changed, I expect, either by the debate itself or by the mind-numbing, post-debate analysis that filled the airwaves.

The big news out of the debate, as many already have observed, is how the three top candidates handled the hypothetical question of multiple attacks on the United States. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) responded by emphasizing taking time to make sure who launched the attack and only belatedly (and relatively weakly) got to the point of the U.S. response.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) talked immediately about retaliation, a response that might not endear her to some elements of her party but was an excellent general election answer. She has spent much of the past six years establishing her bona fides on national security, understanding that the first woman president must show a toughness that allows the American public to feel comfortable with her as commander in chief.

It now will be interesting to see how the positions of Obama and Edwards evolve on national security and on responding to a future attack after the responses they gave in Orangeburg.

After hearing what Clinton said, will her main rivals decide that they need to sound tougher than they did in South Carolina or figure that Democratic audiences prefer an answer long on empathy and caution and short on saber-rattling? We will see how their strategists think they did, compared with Clinton, as they respond to future questions.

As a general rule, longer-shot candidates benefit from these early debates by appearing on the same stage with the frontrunners, creating the impression that all of the candidates are somehow equal and deserve to be taken seriously. So, I suppose the debate was good news for hopefuls such as Sens. Joseph Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, elected officials with credentials and at least a chance to move into the top tier. But none of the second-tier debaters distinguished himself in a way that automatically will result in a surge of attention.

Unlike Republicans, who have an event of at least some importance in August in the Iowa Straw Poll, Democrats don’t have a test that is an opportunity to weed out their field. Quarterly fundraising numbers provide a chance for self-examination by each of the candidates, so it’s certainly possible that around June 30 another Democrat or two could follow former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to the sidelines.

But these debates aren’t likely to weed out also-rans any more than they are to select the nominee. In fact, they encourage candidacies just as long as the debates are open to all. They are useful, primarily, to see how the candidates react to each other and whether they are tinkering with their message and their style.