From now on, you can expect things to get snippy.
That was the message the leading Democratic presidential candidates sent Tuesday night, when the eighth debate of the already exhausting race for the White House unfolded at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Throughout the event, front-runner Senator Hillary Clinton came under withering fire from her top rivals, Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards.
The burgeoning "Survivor"-like alliance between Obama and Edwards — who took turns labeling Clinton a flip-flopper on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to the torture of detainees, Iran, Social Security and NAFTA — was conveniently framed by the randomly generated layout, which landed the three side-by-side-by-side in the middle of the stage. That setup mostly froze out the remainder of the candidates, who had to struggle to get airtime. Fittingly, the night kicked off with the "Rocky" theme blaring, but by the end of the two-hour slugfest, none of the candidates could really claim a knockout.
A week after Obama told The New York Times he needed to get more aggressive in his campaign if he were going to close the gap with Clinton, the debate was a mere hint of the knock-down, drag-out campaign we can expect over the next few months, according to David Beattie, a Democratic strategist and president of Hamilton Campaigns.
"Hillary has consolidated her lead in most polls, but it's still close in some states, so Edwards and Obama need to differentiate themselves from her to gain ground," said Beattie of the candidates' divide-and-conquer tactics on Tuesday. "This is not going to be a race where they pass her without saying why they would be the stronger candidate." Beattie said the tenor of the vigorous debate should soon emerge in the official communications from the Obama and Edwards campaigns as well, with each seeking to draw their distinctions with Clinton to gain an advantage.
Beattie said Clinton, as the front-runner, has to deal with everyone gunning for her, including the Republican candidates. But the strange sight of Obama and Edwards ganging up to attack her on Tuesday night is a simple case of shared goals. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," Beattie said. "They are both working to close the gap with her, though it's probably not an intentional truce between them, but a matter of both having the same imperative."
The debate became so focused on the three top Democratic candidates that the others seemed desperate to do anything they could to grab a bit of the spotlight, including Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd questioning at one point whether Clinton was even electable.
"Senator Clinton ... has been for NAFTA, now she's against it. She voted for a way to authorize sending troops to Iraq, and later said this was a war for diplomacy," Obama said in his opening comments. "That may be politically savvy, but I don't think it offers the clear contrast we need." Edwards went on to suggest that the reason Republicans keep bringing up Clinton is because she's the devil they know and they're comfortable battling her, as they've been doing since the mid-1990s.
With a healthy lead over her fellow Democratic candidates, Clinton's strategy has been to avoid courting controversy or making any public missteps, a tactic her opponents tried to exploit Tuesday night. After Clinton declined to give details of her Social Security plan or talk about whether she would support giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, Edwards attacked her for avoiding the issues.
"In case I misheard, Senator Clinton said two different things in the last two minutes," Edwards said when the driver's-license question — which Clinton brushed off as a "gotcha" issue — came up again. Clinton matched Edwards' and Obama's attacks in a measured, calm voice and denied that she's not been critical enough of the Bush administration. "I don't think Republicans got the message that I'm voting and sounding like them," Clinton responded at one point. "I have stood against George Bush and his failed policies."
Beattie said Clinton will continue to not engage her Democratic opponents on the specifics of their attacks, instead offering a broad view of her policies and focusing her attacks on the Bush administration. What you won't likely see is her fellow Democrats going negative in a personal manner. "They're really sticking to policy and priority differences, but you won't see them saying she's a bad person," Beattie said. "You could say they were being nasty by drawing that contrast, but they will say she's merely not telling the truth. I think they're walking a fine line and they're conscious of that tone leading up to the primary."
That doesn't mean that independent, outside groups won't begin attacking Clinton in the same way the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacked Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004, but Beattie said other Democrats would likely only hurt themselves by slinging personal mud.
With little tactical reason to engage her Democratic opponents, as Beattie predicted, Clinton stuck to lambasting Bush and congressional Republicans on Tuesday, as the others scrambled for some spotlight or a chance to gain some ground.
While Dodd tried to get a bit of shine by decrying Clinton's vote for a recent nonbinding resolution deeming the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said he was also concerned about the vote but was not happy about the Clinton pile-on, lashing the others for their "holier than thou" attitudes toward the New York senator. Beattie joked that Richardson's chivalrous maneuver may indicate that he's "running for vice president."
In one of his only close-ups, Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich, the most liberal candidate in the bunch, called for the impeachment of Bush, an end to funding for the Iraq war and confirmed that he once saw a UFO during a visit to actress Shirley MacLaine's Washington state home. "More people in this country have seen UFOs than I think approve of George Bush's presidency," Kucinich joked.
The tenor of Tuesday's showdown will likely continue and intensify in the lead-up to the first primary, which is scheduled to take place January 3 in Iowa.
"The pressure on Clinton only increases as she holds a nationwide lead, which in some states is very slim," Beattie said. "The key to the presidential primaries is what's going on in Iowa and New Hampshire first. In nationwide polls of Democratic primary voters, those states count for less than 1 percent, but she has to win big in Iowa and New Hampshire. A tie for her hurts her in every subsequent state."