A pared-down panel of four Democratic presidential candidates met in New Hampshire for a nationally televised debate Saturday night, just three days before that state’s key primary, and spent much of the session giving their interpretations of the campaign’s prevailing theme of political change – and disagreeing about which of them is best capable of delivering it.
Fresh off his strong first-place showing in the Iowa caucuses that opened the presidential nominating process on Jan. 3, first-term Illinois Sen. Barack Obama maintained his theme that he can be a transformational figure in American politics. As he often has, he cast his charisma-driven campaign to become the nation’s first African-American president as a chance to bridge partisan, regional and demographic differences and bring people together to address the nation’s problems.
New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of former President Bill Clinton, sought to shrug off her disappointing third-place finish in Iowa, saying she has fought for constructive change for more than three decades in public life – and has the experience she contends Obama and Iowa runner-up John Edwards lack to actually accomplish rather than just talk about change.
Edwards, meanwhile, cast both Clinton and Obama, with their lavishly funded presidential campaigns, as too tied in to the Washington establishment. Less than four years distant from his final year as a senator from North Carolina and the vice presidential nominee on the 2004 Democratic ticket headed by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Edwards again on Saturday brought the aggressively populist edge that has defined his campaign, saying he is uniquely capable of taking on corporate special interests he claims are inimical to the interests of average working Americans.
The discussion often became tense and heated, as the candidates engaged each other personally under the unusually free-wheeling format employed by ABC News anchorman Charles Gibson, the debate’s lead moderator. During the first half of a debate that ran a bit over its scheduled 90 minutes, Gibson threw out a few topics to the candidates and let them have at it. The resulting back-and-forth often allowed the fourth participant, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, to utilize the diplomatic skills he honed as a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and ad hoc envoy to hot spots around the world.
The four had the stage to themselves, as ABC News – which sponsored the debate with New Hampshire TV station WMUR and the Facebook Web site – determined that longshots Dennis J. Kucinich, the liberal House veteran from Ohio, and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel did not meet the criteria for participation that was based on the Iowa caucus outcome and polling done nationally and in New Hampshire. Two well-known Democratic senators who had been in the race, Connecticut’s Christopher J. Dodd and Delaware’s Joseph R. Biden Jr., dropped out after running poorly in Iowa.