Debates Do Little More Than Attack Front-Runner

Do presidential candidates derive any benefit from participating in debates? Lately, candidate debates have focused on attacking the frontrunner, but candidates often fail to draw attention to their own attributes.

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DANIEL SCHORR: Presidential candidates of both parties may well consider what do they benefit from televised debates.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

News analyst, Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: On both sides, the strategy seems to be to gang up on the frontrunner, which diminishes one candidate without necessarily enhancing the others. On the Republican side, frontrunner Rudy Giuliani has engaged in an exchange with Mitt Romney over whether President Bush would need congressional authorization to attack Iran.

On the Democratic side, Senator Hillary Clinton found herself in a no-win position in the Philadelphia debate last night, when Tim Russert raised a sensitive question of New York governor Eliot Spitzer's proposal to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Sensitive, because what Governor Spitzer sees as a way to reduce traffic accidents is taken by some as cuddling of illegal immigrants.

An aide to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff conveyed his concern to Spitzer. In a recent newspaper interview, Senator Clinton said that driver's licenses for illegal immigrants make a lot of sense, given the danger of accidents caused by unlicensed drivers.

Last night, Senator Chris Dodd bore in on Senator Clinton asserting that a driver's license is a privilege not a right that should not be extended to illegal immigrants. Senator Clinton declined to endorse or oppose the Spitzer proposal, but driven into a corner, she said, the governor is dealing with a serious problem.

Mrs. Clinton was trying to navigate between her friend, the governor of New York, and the increasingly strident anti-immigrant ranks. She left it by saying that Governor Spitzer is desperate to act where the Bush administration has failed.

What gets lost in this emotional one-upmanship is the simple fact that requiring immigrants to qualify for licenses is not a favor to them, but a public safety measure to reduce road accidents, just as admitting immigrants to hospital emergency rooms is not a favor to them, but a public health measure. But there is a determined anti-immigrant lobby that votes and Senator Clinton must look ahead past the nomination battle to the pockets of voters she must confront.

So Senator Dodd may have scored a point against the frontrunner, but it's doubtful that he did himself or the public any good.

This is Daniel Schorr.

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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