This is a presidential campaign season full of things we've never seen before, and now we can add the sight of an African American candidate caught in a crossfire because he has become a frontrunner.
Barack Obama was cast in that role in this week's Democratic debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Here stood a tall, young black candidate flanked by a white man and white woman, both trying furiously to take him down a peg. Any foreign observer happening upon the scene would have known immediately which one of these three was the leading prospect to win this state's primary on Saturday.
Debates have not been the best showcase for Obama, who is more comfortable having the only microphone on stage. Eloquent as he usually is, Obama in debate mode sometimes gropes for words.
Myrtle Beach had bruising moments for Obama, whose responses to probing by rivals Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were only adequate. His excuse for doing legal work for a man Clinton called "a slumlord" was glib and less than satisfying. Likewise his explanation for his many votes of "present" in the Illinois legislature. (He might have done better by noting that when Abraham Lincoln served in Springfield he jumped out a window to escape a quorum call.)
Obama's own efforts at counterpunching, such as his shot at Clinton for serving on the board of Wal-Mart, were the sort of tit-for-tat that weakens him as a champion for more positive politics. He looked to be caught in precisely the bind that Clinton's aggressive tactics are intended to create for him.
All the same, the takeaway impression from the first hour of the debate on CNN was of Obama at the center of the action, hounded on all sides, keeping his cool and remaining sympathetic. While at times his broad face looked pained, he was able to turn the mood to humor more than once and flash his trademark smile.
Clinton, by contrast, was too busy with her hit list to worry about likeability on this night. She had her facts honed, she was ready to counter his rebuttals. But the relentlessness of it all became wearing, especially when she overstepped and said: "Senator Obama, it's hard to have a straight-up debate with you because you never take responsibility for any vote." That brought boos and groans from the audience, which included partisans from all three camps. If these were not the only such sounds of disapproval heard all evening, they were certainly the loudest.
Having weathered the storms of the tense first hour, Obama could ease into the warmth of the second, when the format called for sitdown conversation. Seated in swivel chairs, the contestants turned civil. Even the most pointed questions seemed less accusatory, each challenge less provocative.
Arguments among people standing up and pointing fingers at each other are more likely to become fights than arguments among people in chairs keeping their hands to themselves. In debate after debate this season, in both parties, sitting down has lowered the decibel level and elevated the dialogue.
It was in this second half of the program that Obama had his best moments, such as his nuanced answer to the question: "Was Bill Clinton the first black president?" With a sly smile that Hillary could not resist returning, Obama proceeded to salute the former president — admonish his recent tactics — and joke about "dancing abilities" and other signs of "being a brother." The racially integrated audience ate it up.
It was the night of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the night the country pays its respects to King's religious and political vision. The essence of that vision is the transcendance of racial boundaries, and that is the message Obama has striven to make his own.
The biggest danger he faced in Myrtle Beach was that in strengthening his appeal among blacks (who account for more than half the state's Democrats) he would become the latter day Jesse Jackson (who ran twice for president in the 1980s without getting close). Jackson was the first serious black candidate on the national level; Obama wants to be the first to be elected. Transcending race is a worthy ideal, and it's also his only practical way to win.