Hillary Clinton Accuses Barack Obama, John Edwards Of 'Throwing Mud' ... But Does Debate Dissing Matter This Early On?

'The only people really paying attention are party activists and party members,' one expert says of preprimary mudslinging.

Last time, it was a one-two combo on New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's now-scrapped plan to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. On Thursday night, Democratic presidential hopefuls Senator Barack Obama and John Edwards again used a televised presidential debate to sling some mud at front-runner Senator Hillary Clinton.

While each took turns criticizing her stances on Social Security, Iraq and Iran, Edwards hit hardest, slamming Clinton for being a willing participant in a Washington political system that is "rigged and corrupt."

Ouch.

Clinton lashed back by warning her opponents that they were playing into Republicans' hands by using pages straight out of the GOP playbook and "throwing mud" at her.

All of which made us wonder: In the longest — and costliest — campaign for the American presidency in history, does this kind of mudslinging really change minds or, more importantly, votes?

It was the most contentious debate to date among the Democrats, who have been fairly civil up until now. But even after Edwards backed down a bit (he explained that he wasn't trying to denigrate Clinton so much as remind America that he's waiting for the party to "show a little backbone and strength and courage and speak up for those people who have been left behind"), it's unclear if the trash-talking will make any difference when America finally gets to vote a year from now.

"The general election is so far away at this point that the only people really paying attention are party activists and party members," said David King, associate director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. How appropriate, then, that King, whose job is to keep an eye on these things, spent Thursday night at a high school performance of, ahem, "Much Ado About Nothing," which was stage-managed by his daughter.

"If she'd been stage-managing the debate, I might have watched," King joked. "But I think we'll all be bored to death by these candidates by the time spring comes around. The primaries are so far ahead of the general election that mudslinging doesn't really matter very much because they can all hose each other off by summer." King suspected that because the campaign season has been so long this time, most voters won't start really paying attention until early fall, well after the parties have picked their nominees.

And in his memory, there aren't any glaring examples of barbs that were flung in preprimary debates that stung a candidate so mortally that he or she couldn't recover.

Agreeing that there's very little, if any, empirical evidence to suggest that a preprimary debate has definitively boosted or tanked a candidate's chances, University of Chicago Associate Professor of Political Science Gerald Rosenberg said he conducted an experiment two weeks ago after a very telling, previous Democratic debate. "I was asked by the law-school Democrats to watch the debate with them, and there were about 80 students in the room," Rosenberg recalled. "I conducted an experiment, though I knew how it would come out. I asked how many of them had changed their minds about which candidate they supported based on the debate. You know how many hands went up? One."

A big reason the preprimary-debate mudslinging has little impact is that the audiences are "tiny," according to Rosenberg, typically running in the 1 million to 2 million range. What the debates are good for, though, is framing the issues. "Before the Philly debate — you saw how Clinton's critics have said all along that she's a phony or only takes positions to please, and it wasn't sticking," he said. "But after that one, it seemed like it did. If people in Iowa are watching, maybe it can make a difference, but otherwise it really doesn't appear to."

If anything, whether it sticks or not, Rosenberg said he was offended that Clinton even accused her rivals of engaging in mudslinging. "I haven't seen any mudslinging," he said. "It's not mudslinging if you say someone has changed their positions or you think they're wrong. I thought it was outrageous that Clinton said [Obama and Edwards] were mudslinging."