Hillary Clinton Fires Back in Latest Debate

At last night's Democratic debate in Las Vegas, front runner Hillary Clinton took some heat — but the senator threw a couple of flames of her own. Ryan Lizza, a staff writer at the New Yorker, sorts out the scorecard.

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Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): This pantsuit - it's asbestos tonight.

ALISON STEWART, host:

And that's a good thing because Senator Clinton did take some heat, but she threw a couple of flames of her own at the Democratic debate held at the Cox Pavilion at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Along with CNN moderators, some locals were able to ask questions, and some of the candidates other Clinton, Obama and Edwards actually got to answer them.

LUKE BURBANK, host:

Wow.

STEWART: Ryan Lizza is a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine. He's going to walk through the aftermath of the debate with us.

Hi, Ryan.

Mr. RYAN LIZZA (Staff Writer, New Yorker Magazine): Hey, how you guys doing?

STEWART: Doing great. So for folks who didn't stay up and watch it, like you and me…

Mr. LIZZA: Like normal people.

STEWART: Normal people, who are watching "Ugly Betty" and "30 Rock," for the first 15 minutes, it was really just about Clinton and Obama, saying, I know you are but what am I.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIZZA: Exactly right.

STEWART: Let's listen to a little bit of their tussle over health care. Here's Obama on his plan.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I do provide universal health care. The only difference between Senator Clinton's health care plan and mine is that she thinks the problem for people without health care is that nobody has mandated, forced them to get health care. That's not what I'm saying around Nevada. What I see are people who would love to have health care. They desperately want it. But the problem is they can't afford it, which is why we have put forward legislation, we put forward a plan that makes sure that it is affordable to get health care that is as good as the health care that I have.

STEWART: Now, here's Senator Clinton's response.

Sen. CLINTON: There's a big difference between Senator Obama and me. He starts from the premise of not reaching universal health care.

Mr. WOLF BLITZER (Democratic Debate Moderator): Hold on. One at a time.

Sen. OBAMA: No, I understand, but, look, I'm not…

Mr. BLITZER: Senator Obama, we're going to have a lot more…

STEWART: Okay, that was very Jerry Springer for a minute with the crowd going on. Ultimately, who came out ahead in the Obama-Clinton exchanges of the night?

Mr. LIZZA: You know, I think just - if you think about what the - often, these things are tested by who won the expectations game, right? So going into this, this was the big challenge for Hillary Clinton. For the last two weeks, she has done the defensive. Everyone has been ganging up against her. She's had a bunch of stumbles. So tonight was all about does that bad records sort of continue on into this debate, and I don't think it did. I think she had a good night. She was back to the old Hillary, the sort of super policy wonk who has an incredible command to the issues and just sort of looked commanding on stage.

I think what happened in the last debate is she had Tim Russert, a really aggressive inquisitor, just go after her really hard and stumble her on a couple of issues like the driver's license issue and the records at the Presidential Library down in Arkansas. This debate, it was a little bit easier for her.

STEWART: Yes, she does this thing where she sort of has this - her composure is, oh, I'm already president.

Mr. LIZZA: Oh, exactly.

STEWART: She doesn't even talk about the other candidates. She goes like right after Bush and the Republican Party.

Mr. LIZZA: That's right. It's why - she has this whole thing where why should we be attacking each other, we should be attacking the Republicans. Well, you do as a frontrunner because you don't want people to attack you, you know, you sit comfortably on your lead and you sort of argue that, oh, you're attacking me, you're using George Bush talking points. I think she used it at one point.

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. LIZZA: That's what she said about Obama. I think Obama missed a big moment there on health care. You know, they got bogged down into debate on whether you need a mandate or not in your universal health care plan, which is an interesting debate. But the truth of the matter is none of these health care plans are going to actually survive. There's going to be a long congressional debating process, right? And all the details are going to be on the table.

So I thought what Obama could have done there is point out, you know, Hillary Clinton, you had your chance on health care. It's time for someone else to get a chance. And he didn't go there, which was kind of funny because he's been talking about some of the problems of the Clinton years recently. He's been talking about Hillary as a triangulator and…

STEWART: Right.

Mr. LIZZA: …how you need someone new.

STEWART: Another interesting thing was the audience, as you heard, they felt free to boo when one candidate…

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.

STEWART: …pointed out another's problems, and it seems to shake John Edwards a little bit because he's been so pointed. And the others seized on him, pretty specifically engaging what they were calling mud slinging and dirty tactics. Listen to Edwards.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): Just over the course of the last week, Senator Clinton said in Washington that she would vote for the Peru Trade Deal, and she said in Iowa, talking to union members, that she wanted a moratorium on trade deals. And I think people are entitled to know that they have choices. There's nothing personal about this.

STEWART: Did he lose ground last night?

Mr. LIZZA: You know, I thought that was one of the best points of the night. You know, she did say one thing in Iowa and another thing somewhere else. But he was…

STEWART: But he got booed.

Mr. LIZZA: But he was totally overwhelmed by this pro-Hillary audience that booed the poor guy.

BURBANK: It's like the House of Commons or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIZZA: What's that?

BURBANK: That was like the British House of Commons, woo.

Mr. LIZZA: Absolutely, which was - it was kind of fun. But, yeah, the audience was sort of in Hillary's camp as far as, you know, let's not attack each other, let's go after Republicans instead. So it made it tough for Obama and Edwards. You know, you don't want to be under fire from the audience when you're up there on that stage.

STEWART: So, something you mentioned early. You talked about how Hillary Clinton have a little bit of a harder time with Tim Russert. It's not just because…

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.

STEWART: …I work for NBC part time, but he was tough. And this debate format, it seemed a little stiff and it really didn't seem to work for CNN. I'm not trying to pile on. I noticed a little bit of agitation of the candidates sort of turning on the moderators, everything from the questions to the amount of air time. Let's listen to this montage we put together.

(Soundbite of Democratic presidential debate montage)

Mr. BLITZER: Senator Biden…

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): Oh, no, no, no, no…

Mr. BLITZER: I want you to weigh in.

Sen. BIDEN: Don't do it, no. Don't make me speak.

Representative DENNIS KUCINICH (Democrat, Ohio): When you talked about Pakistan, you didn't get a chance to come to me on that question, but I want to point something out to you, Wolf.

Sen. BIDEN: Suzanne's decided. I'm not answering her question. I'm answering the question of a woman who is there, okay?

(Soundbite of applause)

STEWART: That was just unbelievable. At one point, Dennis Kucinich said to the moderator, hello, I'm over here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: I'm taking my UFO out of there.

Mr. LIZZA: That's right. Well, you know what I think we've learned on this debate is the more bells and whistles that they add to the debates, the worse they are. The better debates are simple, fewer moderators, no audience participation, where you're just, you know, you just firing away and getting the candidates to speak as much as possible. And that's what the last MSNBC debate did. They just, you know, this debate we had this long intro where they introduced the candidates like it was a Knicks game.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: They look like - and they came out of the corridor and you're, like, oh, who's going to shake hands and who didn't.

Mr. LIZZA: Exactly. That was kind of a fun moment.

STEWART: Hillary and Obama didn't.

Mr. LIZZA: That was kind of a fun moment.

STEWART: What was that?

Mr. LIZZA: That is kind of a fun moment to watch body language, I guess.

STEWART: So afterward in the spin room, there's always a sense of who won, who lost. And it's hard to boil it down like that, but what was the spin room like?

Mr. LIZZA: Now - you're catching me here (unintelligible). I actually didn't make it - I was not in the spin room.

STEWART: All right.

Mr. LIZZA: So - but you don't need to be in the spin room…

STEWART: That's actually a good thing. I actually applaud you for not going into the spin room.

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. I have to tell you. The spin room is a dying institution. This - the news of the cycle of these debates - that the spin room is just totally over. Because what happens now is every reporter has a blog or a deadline and they don't even make it to the spin room. They're immediately going to their computers to file stuff.

STEWART: That's interesting.

Mr. LIZZA: So the last debate, when I was in the spin room in Philadelphia, these poor surrogates for the candidates would stand around there with their sign and nobody to talk to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: That's really interesting that that's just of a bygone era.

Mr. LIZZA: It is. It's kind of - it's dying. So you get - what happens in the spin room nowadays is you get a lot of foreign journalists who you don't have files, so you got a lot of obscure European questions. You know, Mark Penn main Clinton adviser, David Axelrod main Obama adviser, you know, start talking to the Japanese press about Obama's policy on some local Japanese issue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: All right. Did you enjoyed the debate, quickly, before we go?

Mr. LIZZA: You know, I thought it was okay. I got a little bit of a disappointment. I think CNN, like you said, didn't do as good a job as MSNBC had.

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. LIZZA: It didn't - what we want in these debates is for the storyline to change, and I don't think it quite changed after this one.

STEWART: Ryan Lizza is a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine. I hope you come back, Ryan.

Mr. LIZZA: Thanks for having me.

BURBANK: Coming up on the BPP, put down the melted butter and the tiny fork. That lobster you so callously boiled for your succulent enjoyment might actually be feeling pain. There is a new study out, another salvo in the war over can crustaceans feel pain or not. We'll talk about that.

STEWART: We'll also bring you the most clicked on and e-mailed stories on the Web. This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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