The Democratic presidential debate descended into a series of gotcha personal attacks last night between frontrunners Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, leaving John Edwards as more of a spectator than a participant in the debate. Sounding more like a therapy session than a debate, Obama accused the Clintons of lying while Hillary accused Obama of being irresponsible, as well as being a bit of a coward.
The Washington Post calls the confrontation "angry" and "personal":
The Democratic presidential front-runners clashed angrily in a debate Monday night, with Sen. Barack Obama accusing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband of repeatedly distorting his positions and Clinton asserting that Obama is trying to run away from his record.
Their sharp exchanges in the nationally televised forum underscored the Democrats' increasingly fierce competition five days before a pivotal primary test in South Carolina.
The debate turned personal almost from the outset, as Obama accused the Clintons of misrepresenting his comments about Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party's ideas, as well as his record on the Iraq war. "That is simply not true," he said.
Clinton responded forcefully: "It is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern."
It got worse than that. Obama told the South Carolina audience that "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes." Hillary responded by bringing up Obama's relationship with indicted Chicago businessman Tony Rezko, a first for any Democrat in a debate. Obama reminded the audience that he worked in his community while Hillary worked as a corporate lawyer for Wal-Mart.
And those few Republicans who tuned it just kept passing the popcorn. Edwards should have brought some himself. He finally managed to get the first clue about his status in the race, wondering aloud whether the debate only involved two people. It did, just as much as the race did, and Edwards' lament will certify him as an also-ran.
In terms of entertainment, it moved the needle more than most debates. However, one of the two will have to run in the general election, and the nasty attacks launched by Democrats against their own will wind up in ads in a few months. The Democrats seem determined to provide a bring-your-own approach to oppo research this cycle.
It also points out how desperate Hillary has become. Dogs don't chase after parked cars, as Jazz Shaw once said, and Hillary wouldn't have gotten so personal in her attacks unless she feels threatened -- and certainly not in South Carolina, where Obama has built a reservoir of positive energy. Someone with confidence in winning the nomination would act presidential and stay focused on herself, and wouldn't kneecap an opponent with a reference like Rezko -- especially since shady real-estate and commodities deals lie just below the surface in her own history. Anyone recall the Whitewater deal that contributed to an S&L collapse and a federal bailout, or the cattle-futures deal?
Hillary treaded on thin ice last night. She may find out that it cracked beneath her as people absorb the impact of the debate.