Thursday, November 15, 2007

Obama Exposes Regional Difference With Clinton As Debate Turns For Him

(COMMENTARY) U.S. Sen. Barack Obama tonight turned in his strongest presidential debate performance and exposed a clear regional difference with front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Is $97,000 a lot of money? In most of Obama's Illinois and just about all of Iowa the answer to that is "yes," which makes Obama's position on the question of whether to raise or lift the cap on Social Security taxes more reasonable to Hawkeye State voters than the New York shape-shifting of Clinton.

As it stands, the first $97,500 of a person's annual income is subject to the Social Security tax. Obama supports lifting that to shore up the future of the system while Clinton went with the nostalgia card, suggesting that the she could resurrect the macroeconomic picture that prevailed under her husband and cause the Social Security problem to disappear without hard choices. She suggested that popping the cap would hurt middle-class Americans and argued that in some parts of the nation (namely high-priced New York City which she represents) $97,500 isn't a lot of money. It would be interesting to hear her make that argument in Audubon County, Iowa, where the average home is worth half that much, $49,000.

In the CNN Nevada debate on the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus, Obama said only 6 percent of Americans make more than $97,500 and added that Clinton's use of numbers amounted to a Republican-style manipulation.

"This is the kind of thing I would expect from Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani," Obama said in perhaps his sharpest frontal political assault on Clinton.

Obama joined U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, a longtime member of the Judiciary Committee, as having the most solid answers on a question related to appointments of judges. Biden showed a clear understanding of the process, and has the scars from decades of fighting the culture wars on center court -- Supreme Court justice hearings in the Senate.

But Obama's answer connected more. A former constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, Obama said he wanted to look for candidates who aren't ivory towered academics but rather people who understand the vulnerable.

Obama also earned significant points with the Hispanic community for supporting drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants -- a controversial issue on which his chief rivals either disgree with him or have heavily nuanced positions.

After watching Obama, Clinton and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards dust each other up in top-tier skirmishing, Biden, the Delaware Democrat and venerable senator, appeared as the steady old hand, perhaps the man you'd give the ship's wheel to this instant.

"Who among us knows what they're doing?" Biden asked.

Well, you ...

Biden's answers had the usual thoroughness, touches of Senate-speak, to be sure. But he stopped himself short when the penchant for long-windedness seemed about to take hold. Obama had nearly double the amount of "talk time" as Biden so in a sense the comparison of the two senators in the debate format is fantastically unfair.

In the arena of international affairs, Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, exhibited his superior stature on the issues, noting that he had spoken recently with key figures in troubled Pakistan, even before President Bush. Biden also refused to pander on the issue of merit pay for teachers. Who decides whether a teacher is meriting? It makes more sense, said Biden, the husband of a teacher, to base increased pay on whether a teacher obtains advanced degrees.

North Carolinian Edwards barreled ahead with his populist message -- and people in Nevada, based on the crowd reaction, appeared to be in a buying mood. He ripped Clinton for being a defender of a "rigged" and "corrupt" system, and while acknowledging that he, too, has changed positions over time (such as on the aforementioned drivers' license question), he said Clinton seems to take seemingly two-faced positions in real time.

"There's a difference between that (changing one's mind) and saying two contrary things at the same time," Edwards said.

And thinking about key pockets of voters you have to give labor to Edwards tonight. Edwards noted that with Democrats controlling the White House and Congress in the 1990s, the working class saw health-care killed by big business but the passage of a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Strong stuff from Edwards -- and we know labor is listening. You could almost call for the debate for him using this calculus alone.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson stylistically had a better-than-usual debate perfomance. But for Richardson this comes down to one answer. He said that in some siutations human rights are more important than American security interests -- perhaps a good turn of phrase for an ambassador to the United States but a major opening for Rudy or Republicans to run with in a general election -- and something Hillary Clinton may have to consider if she looks to Richardson as a running mate as is widely speculated. Even in the middle of western Iowa one could hear the wheels turning in the heads of conservative consultants on this one.

Richardson had a no-nonsense answer on drivers' licenses for immigration which came as he articulated a comprehensive immigration reform package. With federal policy failing, states have no choice to pick up the slack and attempt stopgap measures like the drivers' license proposal.

"My law enforcement people said it's a matter of public safety," Richardson said.

Clinton started the night with a misfire -- joking that her pantsuit was made of asbestos, presumably so she could handle the heat. Asbestos jokes aren't funny to Iowans over 30 who had to go to schools in run-down buildings.

Clinton's strongest moments came in explaining the role of gender in the campaign.

"People are not attacking me because I'm a woman," Clinton said. "They're attacking me because I'm ahead."

Clinton had a strong answer on how to handle tainted toys from China: have a third-party investigator go over there. But she was effectivley backed into a box on the question of potential war with Iran because of her vote to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Obama and Edwards continued to hammer her on that, and her nuanced explanation seemed lacking, giving rise to her opponents' strategy to postion her as the most hawkish of the leading candidates on the Democratic side. Clinton did offer a detailed answer on this in an interview a few weeks ago with Iowa Independent.

Where Chris Dodd is concerned my biggest thought on his performance is connected to something Dr. Steven Kraus of Carroll observed the other night at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner: Dodd, a U.S. senator from Connecticut, and Obama clearly have respect for each other.

Dodd is simply a classy senator who can answer questions with reliable competency. Conventional thinking is that the Southwest will determine the 2008 election and that a Richardson vice presidential nomination makes sense because of this. But Dodd is fluent in Spanish as I saw first hand when Lorena Lopez of La Prensa and I conducted a joint interview with him. If Obama gets the nomination Dodd complements him in a number of ways as a running mate -- including his ability to campaign in Spanish.

And yes, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, also stood on the stage.

This piece is crossposted at Iowa

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