February 17, 2008

Clinton Wants A Wisconsin Debate As Obama Adds The Beef

Hillary Clinton desperately wants to get Barack Obama in a one-on-one debate before the Wisconsin primary in order to pin her challenger to policy specifics. Obama, meanwhile, has dodged the debate but gotten the message, according to the New York Times:

Hillary Rodham Clinton renewed her call Saturday to debate Democratic rival Barack Obama in Wisconsin before Tuesday's primary, even as she acknowledged she would cease campaigning in the state a full day before voters go to the polls.

"This is what happens when you've got the kind of schedules that we're all trying to keep up with," she said. "I care deeply about what happens here in this election." ... "The best way we could have met the people is through a debate that is televised and everyone could have watched and drawn their own conclusions," Clinton said when asked why she had limited her campaign appearances in Wisconsin.

Since falling behind Obama in contests won and in the delegate count, the former first lady has pressed hard for more debates and has criticized Obama in campaign commercials for refusing to debate in Wisconsin. The Obama campaign responded in kind, noting that the candidates have debated 18 times since the campaign began.

If nothing else indicated the front-runner status of Barack Obama, this tempest in a teapot will suffice. Front-runners avoid debates, while also-rans need them for traction. Hillary finds herself in the latter position, looking for ways to slow down Obama's momentum. She'd like to steal Wisconsin away from Obama, and painting him as less than courageous in facing her could help take some of the glitter off of Obama's rising star.

Meanwhile, Obama has changed his stump speeches after getting stung by critics as a mouther of empty platitudes. Meet Barack the policy wonk:

Yet as he traveled across Wisconsin last week, Mr. Obama seemed to have let loose a little more of his inner-wonk, which his strategists had once urged him to keep on the shelf.

Even as he was dismissing Mrs. Clinton’s criticism, he appeared to be taking it at least mildly to heart — a suggestion that as a line of attack, she might be on to something.

Suddenly, he was injecting a few more specifics into his campaign speeches. Giant rallies that had sustained his candidacy through a coast-to-coast series of contests on Feb. 5, notable for their rhetorical flourishes and big applause lines, were supplemented with policy speeches and town-hall-style meetings, complete with the question-and-answer sessions he abandoned as he roared out of Iowa and into New Hampshire. (In hindsight, he conceded as he reviewed a defeat to Mrs. Clinton, that was a mistake.)

By every indication, this was not a random change in the Obama style. The senator decided to clue in his audience to the shift on a recent morning in Janesville, Wis., where he presented an economic proposal to create seven million jobs over the next decade.

Hillary hasn't quite unveiled the Walter Mondale attack line on the last great Democratic populist hope, Gary Hart, the "Where's the beef?" slogan stolen from Wendy's burger joints. One can see it coming soon, however, and Obama has already begun adjusting to it. He released his economic agenda this week, and he now sprinkles more specifics in his speeches. Obama even somewhat self-consciously warns audiences that his speeches will have fewer "applause lines", an awkward recognition that he has focused far more on themes than on specifics until now.

Republicans would dearly love to see both candidates go farther on the record on policy. At this point, both Hillary and Barack believe that they need to out-Edwards John Edwards, a curious notion considering that Edwards failed to win a single state this year. The more they get specific with their populist agenda, the better John McCain can target either of them in a general election.


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