ORANGEBURG — The front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination mostly played it safe during Thursday’s first-in-the-nation presidential debate, allowing a couple of second-tier candidates — Delaware Sen. Joe Biden and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson — to shine.
The war in Iraq and gun control dominated the debate, held at S.C. State University.
Thursday night was the first time the eight candidates had appeared together on stage. It is the kickoff to a weekend of events that has South Carolina in the center of the presidential campaign universe.
Most turned out to see the political stars — U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill. But Biden and Richardson stood out with clearly stated positions and deft handling of a few tough questions posted by NBC’s Brian Williams, who moderated the debate.
“I don’t think any of the top tier candidates did themselves any harm, and I think the second tier candidates did themselves a lot of good,” said Congressman Jim Clyburn, who was responsible for bringing the debate to S.C.
The debate started fast with Williams going straight to the issue dominating the country’s attention: the war in Iraq.
Williams asked U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., if she agreed with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who said recently the war in Iraq was lost. Clinton did not specifically answer — a common reaction for many of the candidates — but defended Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“This is not America’s war to win or lose,” she said. “We have given the Iraqi people the chance to have freedom, to have their own country. It is up to them to decide whether or not they’re going to take that chance.”
All the candidates agreed the war should end. But only Richardson went so far as to say no troops should be left in Iraq. The other candidates all supported some number of U.S. troops remaining in the country for different periods of time.
“We must end this war,” Richardson said. “This is what I would do if were president today. I would withdraw all of our troops, including residual troops, by the end of this calendar year.”
In an exchange that could play well with S.C. voters, Richardson scored when Williams pointed out he is the National Rifle Association’s highest-rated candidate of either party. Richardson said that while he supports the Second Amendment right to bear arms, he does support certain kinds of gun control.
S.C. native John Edwards at one point seemed frustrated that the debate’s one-minute response format was not allowing enough in-depth discussion of each candidate’s plans for the country.
Asked which tax he would raise to pay for his health care plan, Edwards took issue with the debate’s direction. “This is an example — we’ve had a lot of discussion tonight — not a great deal of discussion so far about the substance of the very specific ideas each of us have.”
Biden fared better in the format.
When asked what’s his biggest professional failure he shot back “overestimating the competence of this administration and underestimating the arrogance.”
The night was not without its missteps.
For example, asked to name America’s three most important allies, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., came up with the European Union and Japan. Besides only naming two, Obama left out Israel, and Williams called him on it. Obama then cited Israel as an ally.
Clinton took few risks overall, being steady throughout.
She accepted blame for the early 1990s failure of a universal health care plan proposed during her husband’s presidency. But Clinton said that failed initiative is an example of how she has stood up for what she believes in.
That, in turn, could be partly responsible for recent polls showing many in Americans view her unfavorably.
“Why do you think Republicans are looking forward to running against you with so much zeal?” Williams asked.
“I take it as a perverse form of flattery, actually, that if they weren’t worried, they would not be so vitriolic in their criticism of me,” Clinton said.
U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., scored points with the Democratic crowd by referencing his family’s ties to South Carolina — his father prosecuted civil rights cases here in the 1940s — but wasn’t helped by Williams’ choice of questions.
Dodd was the only senator on the debate stage to vote to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Given that court’s ruling last week on partial-birth abortion, Williams asked, “Do you regret your vote?”
No, Dodd said, but he is “disappointed” because, he said, Roberts broke his word. During confirmation hearings, Dodd said, Roberts said “he would uphold precedent. That was a very important answer he gave ... And what he did, of course, is walk away from the woman’s health.”
Former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio did their best to stand out.
Gravel nearly raved at his colleagues, once saying he felt like a “potted plant” on stage.
Kucinich was more reasoned, pointing out he was the only one to vote against the Iraq war originally.
Reach Sheinin at (803) 771-8658.