Las Vegas Offers Best Presidential Debate

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Las Vegas has never been a one-ring circus, and the Democratic presidential debate had plenty to contend with. Over at Caesars Palace was the HBO Comedy Festival headlined by Jerry Seinfeld. Over at the courthouse was a preliminary hearing starring O.J. Simpson.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Commentator and screenwriter John Ridley was in Las Vegas for the debate and took in the spectacle Vegas style from a room at the Hard Rock Hotel.

JOHN RIDLEY: There are a couple of ways to come at Las Vegas. You can be part of the nickel slot/shrimp cocktail crowd, or you can be a player - go big, live large, dig the spectacle.

I wanted the Democratic debate to show some player politics. Player politics is no stranger to Vegas. My favorite example: It was at the Sands Casino where a million dollars in a satchel was said to have been transferred from Joe Kennedy to Sam Giancana via Frank Sinatra to buy votes for Jack in the 1960 presidential election - nothing nickel slot or shrimp cocktail about that.

Vegas has never been a one-ring circus, and the debate had plenty to contend with. Over at Caesars was the HBO Comedy Festival headlined by Jerry Seinfeld. And over at the courthouse was a preliminary hearing headlined by O.J. Simpson.

The fact that when I told the cocktail waitress, who brought around my white chocolate martini while I was playing baccarat, that I was in town for the debate and she asked: really, who are you debating? - that kind of says it all.

So I head over to the Cox Pavilion at UNLV to watch the match up. Only they've got all the journalists herded into a basement room where we're supposed to watch it on a bunch of flat-screen TVs. No. Sorry. If I can't watch the debate on the floor, I'm not watching it in a basement. Not in Vegas. That is not player style. So with half an hour before the show starts, I make a call to my casino host Richard over at the Hard Rock Hotel, tell him I need some helping out. My driver for the night, Joey from Brooklyn, whisks me to the Hard Rock, and Richard hooks me up in a suite with a pool view for the two hours. I'll tell you this: even in Vegas, it's a little embarrassing to have to ask to use a room for just two hours. But we quickly gather up a small, informal, non-scientifically arranged group of casino employees to rate the action. And man, was there action - for the first few minutes of the debate anyway; Clinton and Obama going back-and-forth; people yelling stuff from the audience. To extend the boxing metaphor, the other four candidates were pretty much reduced to corner men, and Obama and Edwards, realizing they weren't going to score a knockout punch early, tried to go the distance, but that's no way to win a prize fight.

As far as I'm concerned, the second half of the night proved why though regular citizens deserve a voice in politics they shouldn't necessarily be the ones asking the questions.

The winner of the debate? A poll of my small, informal, non-scientifically arranged group gave it to Clinton, the consensus that she pretty much killed it with her they're-attacking-me-because-I'm-ahead quip.

Me, I score this one to the city. You can call it chance or happenstance, but I don't think it was just by the grace of Lady Luck that the best debate so far happened to be in Las Vegas.

INSKEEP: Commentator and screenwriter John Ridley. And you can read his blog at npr.org/visibleman.

There were some other Democrats debating last night and here are some of the things that they said. Senator Joe Biden said the election is not about change, it's about action - once the new president takes office. Senator Chris Dodd was asked which is more important, human rights or national security; he said obviously national security. Dennis Kucinich said you cannot look at Pakistan and the destabilization in many Muslim nations without understanding the role that our aggression against Iraq has played in contributing to that. And New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said the future is renewable energy; it's not oil, it's not coal, it's not nuclear. Some of the comments from the debate last night.

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