Election 2008

Candidates Exchange Jabs at Democratic Debate

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The tension simmering between two of the top Democratic candidates boils over at a Democratic presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama exchange jabs on their political records. A roundtable discusses the Congressional Black Caucus Democrat Presidential debate and the latest poll numbers.


I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In just a few minutes, our weekly visit with the Mocha Moms. Members of the Columbia chapter give us their take on parenting and politics. That's later.

But first, more politics: a special Roundtable. The tension simmering between the two top Democratic campaigns boiled over last night at the Democratic presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Senators Clinton and Obama went after each other on health care reform, their records on community activism and when to pull out of Iraq.

Meanwhile, John Edwards looked for a way into the conversation, sometimes playing mediator, sometimes complaining about being left on the sidelines of the debate which was co-sponsored by CNN and the Congressional Black Caucus. Was it a defining moment of the campaign, or was there more heat than light? And how will South Carolina voters respond?

I'm delighted to have with me to talk about this Dr. Adolphus Belk, Jr. He's assistant professor of political science and African-American studies at Winthrop University.

Pamela Gentry, she's senior political producer and blogger for BET.

And Wayne Washington, a reporter for South Carolina's leading newspaper, The State.

Welcome to you all. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. PAMELA GENTRY (Senior Political Producer and Blogger, BET): Thank you.

Mr. WAYNE WASHINGTON (Reporter, The State): Thank you.

Dr. ADOLPHUS BELK, JR (Political Science and African-American Studies, Winthrop University): Thank you.

MARTIN: Now - let's now bring in - I normally don't ask this because it's such a cliche, but I feel this time I have to ask: Was there a winner last night, Dr. Belk?

Dr. BELK: If anything, I think that Senator Edwards presented himself very well, not engaging in the type of back and forth that typified the exchanges between Senators Clinton and Obama. And so I think that he was able to answer the questions that were being asked. He was able to be forceful at times, conciliatory at other times, going back and forth and explaining his positions on the issues. And I really think that he presented himself well.

Unfortunately, he's really the third person in this two big rock star-type debate. And I don't know if it's going to translate into much greater support for him.


Ms. GENTRY: I don't think there was a winner last night. I do think - I agree that Senator Edwards, at least, got jabs in there. He was recognized, only because he wasn't in the fighting, but not because of something that will really propel him, I think, in between those two candidates. They're at the top of the heap right now. They're going to stay there.

MARTIN: Wayne?

Mr. WASHINGTON: I actually agree that there wasn't necessarily a winner. However, I do think that there - if you could look at it as someone having lost, I think Barack Obama did not do as well as perhaps he would have wanted to do.

MARTIN: Because?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Because his style is explanatory. He's a little slower. He explains complicated issues. He explains his position. And sometimes his positions are pretty nuanced. And in that first phase of the debate when they were behind podiums, he was taking more flak than giving.

MARTIN: So it was a knife fight, and he was having a seminar.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yeah. And it served as someone of an object lesson for the types of debates and the types of campaigning he might have to undergo if he were to win the nomination. If he thinks what Hillary Clinton is throwing at him is tough, he'll really need to bone up for being prepared for the Republicans.

MARTIN: In case people aren't clear on what we're talking about, the tone of the debate is getting a lot of attention. Right out of the gate, here's an exchange I'd like to play for people just to give them a sense of what we're talking about.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): While I was working on those streets, watching those folks see their jobs shipped overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.

MARTIN: And who was at the debate last night? Pam, you were there, right?

Ms. GENTRY: Well, I…

MARTIN: Because how do people react to this?

Ms. GENTRY: Well, there were cheers. There were jeers. I mean, that was expected. But this is the biggest issue right there. These are the types of things that are going to come back to haunt both those candidates, should they get the nomination. Because they are giving more information and they're going after each other now and targeting each other as Democrats. And all of this is something the Republicans can write down and hold for future debates. The other thing is…

MARTIN: Yeah, but there are no secrets in an Internet age. They know all this stuff.

Ms. GENTRY: No. That's true. Well, it's not…

MARTIN: I mean, you know, really important is an issue that was first surfaced by Al Gore…

Ms. GENTRY: Right.

MARTIN: …and it later came to haunt Michael Dukakis, so that's nothing new.

Ms. GENTRY: I think the applause and the, you know, there was only one boo last night, and that was actually for Senator Clinton when she made a derogatory remark. So I think the audience participation was interesting, but I don't know how much influence it had for people watching at home.

MARTIN: Dr. Belk, I wanted to ask you, do you consider this kind of dialogue - and are voters here in South Carolina are going to consider this kind of dialogue within bounds or out of bounds? And how do you think it's going to play here?

Dr. BELK: I think a lot of South Carolinians understand that politics is sometimes a rough-and-tumble affair and that this is not outside of the fray. I think part of the reason why we're seeing the level of intensity increase so much in this contest that Senator Obama went from being an oddity or a curiosity to being a formidable obstacle following the Iowa caucuses. And so if you look at some of the information from Gallup, Senator Clinton was leading Senator Obama with African-American voters going back into early 2007.

And then after Iowa, that changed. And all of a sudden, she went from enjoying a 12 to 15-point lead with black voters to finding herself behind by 25 points. And so now, they were always running neck and neck in terms of ability to raise money. But in the ability to attract votes, Obama has gained some traction. And as a result, we see the Clinton campaign and some of her surrogates ratcheting up the pressure, if you would, on Senator Obama, trying to distinguish themselves.

MARTIN: Wayne, this state has had a history of campaigns that some people have considered dirty. Notably in 2000, the campaign between John McCain and George W. Bush was marked by what some consider a dirty tricks campaign. In fact, some people think it came back to haunt because that - some people consider to created a kind of a sympathy effect for John McCain this time around. I'm sure that's kind of, you know, a matter of some dispute. But what do you think? I mean, do you think the voters here will see this as appropriate public discourse, appropriate discussion of differences? Or do you think that it'll be a turnoff?

Mr. WASHINGTON: I think that the supporters of Barack Obama will see this as Hillary Clinton beating up on their guy. And I think it will drive even more African-Americans into Barack Obama's camp and widen that gap between support for Obama and support for Clinton. But I think in some odd way, this could actually help Hillary Clinton. The more Barack Obama is seen as the black candidate, I think the less likely he is to fare well down the road.

And I think - so in this context, charges, accusations - even if they aren't absolutely true, even if they aren't completely refuted, they're effective. Because they draw black support to Obama. Black folks don't like seeing one of their own attacked. And under almost any circumstances, black folks tend to rally to that black person. That's happened with Obama. But I think it could have a reflexive kind of questioning effect among white voters, and that might help Hillary down the line.

MARTIN: Yeah. There's a saying if you're explaining, I'm winning.


MARTIN: Yeah. So…

Mr. WASHINGTON: It's defense.

MARTIN: You were saying that he is a position of explaining. Pam?

Mr. WASHINGTON: It's defense.

Ms. GENTRY: I think that that has been a design by the Clinton campaign, is to portray Barack Obama as a black candidate because he was running as a candidate, as an American, as a man from the Senate and not with color. And I think that the Clintons have been very clever in the way that they have been able to introduce race into this competition to make sure that that just what you're talking about happens.

MARTIN: But class also - you know, The Wall Street Journal had a story today about the class divide in the African-American community. And I know this is the kind of thing that a lot of people dispute about. They feel that, you know, some of these issues, they feel, are overblown. But this is a fact, that among whites, Clinton is doing better among blue collar and less educated whites. And Obama is doing better among better educated and upper-income whites. So I'm wondering if the same is translating in the African-American community. Dr. Belk?

Dr. BELK: We conducted a poll, myself and Dr. Scott Huffmon, one of my colleagues, with the assistance and support of South Carolina ETV. And what we found in late August, early September was that there were some differences between higher educated African-Americans and African-Americans with less than college education in terms of increased support for Senator Obama. At the same time, though, I think that my colleagues are very right, that Obama has tried to frame his policy positions in rhetoric in such a language that's universal that tries to make appeals across racial lines, that tries to make appeals across class lines, saying that if we can lift up the least of these in the process, we can help a lot of Americans that are experiencing some great difficulties at this moment. And that class has been an issue, but with African-American voters in terms of race or class, it's oftentimes come down to the sense of linked fate. Is it good for the race? And if it's good for the group, it's good for me as an individual.

MARTIN: But Wayne's point is that once this debate becomes racialized, once this campaign - and Pam's point also - is that once it becomes racialized, by definition, just based on the numbers, Obama loses. Because there's no way he can win with solely African-American votes. There just aren't enough of them.

Dr. BELK: And that's part of the idea. And you see the way that he's responding. He's trying to deal with these things, but at the same time, get right back on message to talk again about those universal ideals. And I do think it's a deliberate strategy. When you have four or five people making comments over the space of two weeks, that's not an accident.

MARTIN: To whom do you feel last night's debate was directed? I mean, it's taking place in South Carolina, but it's clearly a national debate. It was broadcast nationally on CNN. There was a lot of advance - I don't know if hype is the right word, but there was a lot of attention being focused on this debate. To whom do you think that the tone was directed? Pam?

Ms. GENTRY: I think they were all - they all had different objectives last night. And I see that Hillary Clinton came there to do a national debate, to look towards Super Tuesday to let people know that I'm running for president. I plan to win here, and I plan to win everywhere else. It's the same reason that she's leaving the state this week to travel a couple of different places. She's not spending most of her time here in South Carolina.

I think Senator Obama came on stage to clarify that not only is he running against Senator Hillary Clinton, he's tired of running against Bill Clinton. And I think that John Edwards came on stage and said, look - which he did. He said it right out. There are more than two people in this debate. He wanted to say there are more than two people in this race.

MARTIN: Wayne, talk to me about John Edwards, if you would. He made a point of saying, you know, I'm a son of the South. I was born in this state, lived here, lived - he certainly represented North Carolina in the Senate. Do you think that he got any traction from this? Is there any opening for him here?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Actually, I think the path is a very difficult one for Edwards. We've had three early contests: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada. Edwards has had a second place, a third place and a third place. And polls indicate that he is again in third place in his native state.

The whole rationale for Edwards running and competing is to make the claim that, hey, I am a son of the South, and I can win down here in the fall. But the record shows - 2004, when he was the VP nominee, they didn't win anything in the South. And if he loses here - he made the point during last night's debate that campaign contributions are not charitable contributions.

People aren't giving out of the goodness of their own heart. They're giving because they want attention to their particular problems, and they give to someone they think can win. And a third-place finish in his native state becomes a difficult sell. It becomes difficult to tell campaign contributors, hey, look. I can still win this thing. Even though I lost the state that I was born in, I can still win. That's a tough sell.

And so I think South Carolina is very important to Edwards, as are those southern states that will quickly follow. I don't know that Edwards will drop out. But if he does - if he finishes poorly here, that's a tough story to sell.

MARTIN: In fact, it reminds me of what I thought was a kind of a missed opportunity for Obama, when Edwards was saying I'm a national candidate. You know, I know you all can win in Chicago and New York, and that's all fine - to point out that Obama has had a number of endorsements from red state - so-called red state - leading red-state politicians like Tim Kaine, governor of Virginia, Claire McCaskill, senator of Missouri. But - so I want to ask, along those lines, what do you think was each candidates best moment and each candidates worst moment? Wayne, do you want to start?

Mr. WASHINGTON: I think when - early in the debate, Barack Obama, trying to explain his position on the present votes, was not a good moment for him. I think that was a low point for him.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, both Senator Clinton and senator - former Senator John Edwards pointed out there were a number of votes that he took when he was a state legislator in Illinois, where he voted present. And this has been much covered in the print media, but less so on the broadcasting side. His argument was this is the party leadership in a number of these instances…


MARTIN: …but they were having none of that.

Mr. WASHINGTON: I think Edwards had a very good moment when he said, look, there are three people in this race. And he also had a pretty good moment when he said, look, this back-and-forth between Clinton and Obama doesn't get anybody health care. It doesn't help anybody. And I think that allowed him to position himself as the reasonable, mature, above-the-fray kind of guy.


Ms. GENTRY: Oh, goodness. I think that Hillary Clinton's - probably her worst moment were some of her facial expressions, believe it or not. Her silent body language, I thought it did put - it gave you a sense that she was out for the kill. And I would say - I would agree that Senator Obama's worst moment was his explanation of the present vote. And it could not be explained by the sound bites, so he was at a disadvantage to begin with.

Senator Edwards, I thought his best moment was actually when he came back to challenge Obama's present votes. You know, when he actually said, well, it's - can't - why can't you explain that? You know, you have to make tough decisions. You have to say yes or no. So I thought that was his - probably his best political moment. And I didn't think, overall, he had any bad moments.

MARTIN: Okay. Dr. Belk?

Dr. BELK: Looking at Senator Obama, I think that the Wal-Mart comment reverberated throughout the audience. You heard an audible response to that when he finally seemed to hit back with some type of force or some type of conviction. I thought that reverberated through the crowd in a very powerful way. Some of the worst moments involved the long, detailed explanations, which as a political scientist, sounded good to me, but voters, it's, you know, yawn. So it - I don't think that went over as well.

Thinking about Senator Clinton, I thought that she did a fantastic job of trying to take the initiative. And that's hard when we talk about a woman candidate having to run as a man, running as a woman, as one of my colleagues said at a conference in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago. And she has to carve out this place where she could be forceful but not come off as being too forceful as a woman. And I thought that she did a very good job trying to find that middle ground, but, at some time, seemed to be so angry and disturbed that Senator Obama is here ruining this moment because he didn't wait his turn.

And then, finally, thinking about Senator Edwards, I thought that Senator Edwards did a good job of trying to re-interject himself into this, saying, I'm here. I'm relevant. But, again, it's too much - it's too late for him.

MARTIN: It's too late for him. But Senator Obama seemed angry to me, at point. How does that play?

Ms. GENTRY: But, you know, he's - it seemed like a calm anger. But it was definitely - it was there. You know, it was very noticeable. Yes, I agree. But I just think that there were the facial - his exchange were not - he didn't also didn't look at Senator Clinton as much as she tended to glare at him. So I think that both of them had this look of being upset. But it was the way that it was carried out (unintelligible)…

MARTIN: Do you think that - and we only have about a minute left. Do you think that this tone continues through the rest of the week, or do you think that they're going to try to flip the script at this point? Because a lot of people are saying, I wasn't digging that. There were some people say, you know, it's all fair in love and war, as you say. But some people say, I'm not digging that. So, very briefly, Wayne - continue, or chill from now on?

Mr. WASHINGTON: I think it will continue. I think the surrogates will continue with it. I think Hillary will go on to kind of compete nationally. But I do think that this negative tone will continue.

MARTIN: Pam? Okay.

Ms. GENTRY: It will continue.


Dr. BELK: It'll go on.

MARTIN: Okay. Thank you all so much for speaking with us. I was joined by Dr. Adolphus Belk, Jr., assistant professor of political science and African-American studies at Winthrop University, Pamela Gentry, senior political producer and blogger at BET, and Wayne Washington, a reporter for South Carolina's newspaper, The State. They were here with me in our studio at SCETV in Columbia.

Thank you all so much.

Ms. GENTRY: It's a pleasure.

Dr. BELK: Thank you.

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