Will the last Democratic debate before Supersaturated Tuesday, scheduled for Thursday night in Los Angeles, be a mano-a-mano slamfest? During the previous gathering of Democratic candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton got rather nasty, as John Edwards attempted to play the grown-up. With Edwards departed from the race, finally there will be a direct Clinton-against-Obama face-off. And the tensions--and stakes--are obviously higher. Yeah, it's easy to depict this as a sporting event. The Super Bowl debate, etc. (CNN calls it campaign coverage "Ballot Bowl '08.") But at this point in the contest, the not-so-great policy differences between the two are not what counts. What matters are the persons--and that includes how they punch, whether they punch, and how they take a punch. Many--if not most--voters will make a final determination based on their impressions of the character, values, judgment, experience, and talents of the two remaining contenders. And here's the last chance Clinton and Obama each have to compare him- or herself to the other--up close and personal.
On Wednesday, the campaigns provided a preview of what could come. During a speech in Denver--where over 10,000 people turned out to see him--Obama presented a sharp critique of Clinton. "Democrats will win in November and build a majority in Congress not by nominating a candidate who will unite the other party against us," he proclaimed, "but by choosing one who can unite this country around a movement for change." He went on:
It is time for new leadership that understands the way to win a debate with John McCain or any Republican who is nominated is not by nominating someone who agreed with him on voting for the war in Iraq or who agreed with him in voting to give George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, who agrees with him in embracing the Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to leaders we don't like, who actually differed with him by arguing for exceptions for torture before changing positions when the politics of the moment changed.
Obama noted that if he wins the Democratic nomination, "Republicans won't be able to make this election about the past." And he accused Clinton of being merely another finger-in-the-wind, truth-skirting Washington politician:
If you choose change, you will have a nominee who doesn't just tell people what they want to hear. Poll-tested positions, calculated answers might be how Washington confronts challenges, but it's not how you overcome those challenges; it's not how you inspire our nation to come together behind a common purpose, and it's not what America needs right now. You need a candidate who will tell you the truth.
This was harsh. Shortly afterward, Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist, told reporters on a conference call, that Obama was "not ready to practice" the "new politics" he preaches. He dismissed the Denver speech as "the greatest hits of [Obama's] negative attacks....They are false. They are personal." Even before the speech happened, the Clinton campaign reacted to excerpts released by the Obama campaign and posted a prebuttal on a campaign website. The Clintonites noted that Clinton had publicly opposed the use of torture, had never said she would not engage in vigorous diplomacy with America's foes, had backed steps to restrict Bush's ability to take military action against Iran, and had compiled a voting record on Iraq nearly identical to Obama's.
The Clintonites were narrowly right on some points. But Obama was swinging widely, presenting the choice in large, broad terms: old versus new, insider versus non-insider, calculation versus boldness, partisan versus visionary, and, of course, the past versus the future. In national polls, Clinton still leads Obama. (Obama people, however, claim that the gap in California has narrowed to 3 percent--putting their man comfortably within striking distance.) So Obama's challenge remains: to persuade millions of Democrats they ought to go with the unconventional option, instead of the conventional one. That's not a case that lends itself to nuance. Can Obama sell hope, change, and above-the-fray politics and directly confront Clinton at the same time? Thursday night could be his final shot at doing so.