Democrats Gather to Watch Candidates' Debate

Groups of Democrats gathered last night to watch candidates for their party's presidential nomination debate in Manchester, N.H.

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Now, some young Democrats and their reaction to last night's presidential debate. All eight candidates for the Democratic nomination met in Manchester, New Hampshire - CNN was the sponsor, and Wolf Blitzer the moderator. National polls have consistently shown Hillary Clinton well ahead of the pack with Barack Obama second, and John Edwards in third. In last night's debate, Edwards was the most aggressive, presumably reflecting his underdog status.

NPR's Linda Wertheimer watched the debate with a group of young Democrats in Manchester.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: New Hampshire voters are a special variety of political professionals well aware of their first in the nation status. Watching the debate with seven young politically active Democrats, we heard lots of kibitzing during the debate, as well as politically sophisticated judgments afterwards.

Unidentified Man#1: Poor Mike Gravel. If anything, he's trying.

WERTHEIMER: The debate began with a question to Senator Barack about a foiled terrorist plot at New York's JFK Airport. Is the Bush administration's war on terror a success?

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Look, all of us are glad that we haven't had a terrorist attack since 9/11, and I think there are some things that the Bush administration has done well. But the fact of the matter is is that we live in a more dangerous world not a less dangerous world.

WERTHEIMER: Our group of young Democrats did not think Obama gained ground during this debate. They thought the war on terror and the war in Iraq were the most important things discussed all evening. But the liveliest part of the debate was the tussle between Senator Hillary Clinton and former Senator john Edwards on the war. On several occasions in the debate she would try to point out the differences between the Democrats were not significant, but differences with the Republicans were. Here's Clinton from the debate.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): I think it's important - excuse me - particularly to point out this is George Bush's war. He is responsible for this war. He started the war. He mismanaged the war. He escalated the war. And he refuses to end the war.

WERTHEIMER: And a moment later, John Edwards, emphasizing the differences on ending the war.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Democratic Presidential Candidate): There are differences between us. And I think Democratic voters deserve to know the differences between us. I think there is a difference between making very clear when the crucial moment comes on Congress ending this war what your position is. And standing what? That's all I'm saying. They eventually voted the right way, I respect them for voting the right way, but there are important differences between us on this and the voters aren't…

WERTHEIMER: According to our debate watchers, Hillary Clinton was presidential - all about rising above the fray and bringing the candidates together. They did not like John Edwards' criticism of his colleagues on the Iraq war.

Meagan Coffman works in the New Hampshire Senate Campaign.

Ms. MEAGAN COFFMAN (Political Director, New Hampshire Senate Campaign): I think the back and forth was just because we've all this so many times. And that was when they started to play "Gotcha". That's when he made the comment about -Chris Dodd said this - but Hillary, you know, Hillary and Senator Obama - because he always had to call her Hillary - you know, they just voted quietly, they walked in there quietly. And then, Obama got in with the "Gotcha". Well, I was against this four and half years before you were. You know what I mean? It was just - it was the most entertaining part of the debate I thought. Because…

Mr. MIKE ROLLO (State Legislator, New Hampshire): Well, it is so much easier for John Edwards now to sit back and point a finger, because he's now not accountable to anyone. He doesn't have to answer to constituents.

WERTHEIMER: You've also heard from Mike Rollo. At 33, he's a state legislator, the old man of the group. Although our group was critical of Edwards, Mark Corbin, who's a high school history teacher in Londonderry, thought Edwards did bring up an important issue.

Mr. MARK CORBIN (History Teacher, Londonderry High School): They didn't really address, you know, the growing concerns of the middleclass. And, you know, at the end, John Edwards brought up - well, we didn't address poverty, but between immigration and health care there were definitely opportunities where they could bring that in. So I was disappointed because I see that as the true issue in America.

WERTHEIMER: At 24, Mark Corbin is our youngest participant. Corbin's philosophical favorite in the debate was Congressman Dennis Kucinich. But New Hampshire voters are pragmatic, he says, Kucinich has no chance. Still, these voters felt Dennis Kucinich is a more serious candidate than former senator Mike Gravel. Our group also thought that Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware was the best of the rest. They liked his comments on the war and on gays in the military.

Here's Meagan Coffman.

Ms. COFFMAN: I think he broke out of the pack a little bit, between Richardson and Dodd. My issue is can he win a general election? I don't think Joe Biden can win a general election. So it didn't so anything for me. But he won points and then I noticed, because I think we all - those of us who are involved in the process - recognize that it's Hillary, Obama, and somewhat Edwards are the frontrunners and who's going to break out of that fourth tier. And I think that Biden was strong tonight and made some great strides at doing that.

WERTHEIMER: These young voters were also intrigued by Governor Bill Richardson's suggestion that the U.S. might boycott the Olympics in Beijing to protest China's failure to stop genocide in Darfur. That's out-of-the-box thinking, one said. Senator Christopher Dodd said a boycott would go too far.

The closing thought from our group: While the frontrunners now will probably be the frontrunners in 2008? Maybe they won't. This is New Hampshire and it's only June.

Linda Wertheimer, NPR News, Manchester.

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