When he was good, he was very, very good. When he wasn’t, he was dangerously close to ordinary. Spoke movingly – even/almost presidentially – about America’s troubled history with race, his favorite teacher and how hard he would fight for universal health care. (Obama even drew an approving nod from Elizabeth Edwards in the audience on that last one). Took occasional soft shots at Clinton on Iraq and her questionable ability to fight for change (his main theme), but never made a decisive impact. He began many more sentences with, “When I am president” (without the conditional) than he has in past debates, but his own video (all the candidates made them, and they were sprinkled throughout the telecast) hit more Kennedy chords than the live Obama did. Still, his best performance to date, positioning him to return in later forums to the change-change-change contrast he wants (and needs) to define his candidacy.
She had some strong answers, but seemed to be sitting on her lead and didn’t emerge as the clear winner like she has in recent debate outings. Clinton took the incorporation of the YouTube questioners’ names to an extreme – at times she seemed engaged in monologue-as-dialogue with them, as if they were actually on the stage. Still, she topped main rival Obama at a key moment with a decisive analysis of diplomacy and neatly sidestepped questions about how to define “liberal” (as if she had practiced it!), her gender (smilingly turned the question to her bread and butter-experience and leadership), Elizabeth Edwards’ recent challenge to her feminist cred (gracefully turning the other cheek) and the potential Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton dynastic turnoff (with an audience pleasing anti-Bush 43 shot and chaser).
Started out blazing, with passionate answers railing against banks, mortgage companies, insurance companies and special interests of all stripes. But CNN seemed to validate the CW that Edwards has dropped from the first tier by forcing him to go long stretches without talking, leaving the candidate looking aggravated and with nothing to do but tap his fingers in the cutaways. His submitted video took on the infamous $400 haircut with cutting humor — but in a fashion that might have been too slick for some. Fumbled the story of a female American pilot and Iraq vet who was sitting with Elizabeth Edwards in the audience, and inexplicably told Hillary Clinton he didn’t like her jacket in an effort to offer an amusing response to a wacky question which had candidates saying something they liked and disliked about the person to their left. Passionate anecdote from his recent poverty tour showed him at his best near the end, but the slump in the middle (and the odd sartorial insult) cost him big.
The rest don’t count. Just ask Edwards and The Rodham. And look who “won”.